How India’s “Untouchable” Women Are Fighting Back Against Sexual Violence

Photo: Courtesy of Thenmozhi Soundararajan/Dalit Women Fight.
Manisha Mashaal (second from right) protests with other Dalit people to end sexual violence in India. Dalit women struggle to raise awareness about caste-based sexual violence.
Manisha Mashaal was five years old when her schoolteacher first called her an “untouchable” in front of the rest of her class. “That’s when I found out why my family’s house was so close to the trash dumpsite of the village, and why it was so separated from houses of the dominant castes,” Mashaal said. India is home to more than 100 million Dalit women, according to the 2011 national census. The Dalit, sometimes referred to as "untouchables," have long been considered the lowest rung of the Indian caste system, despite the fact that India's 1950 constitution ostensibly abolished untouchability. Mashaal, now 27, said she faced harassment from students and teachers alike in her village of Badarpur because of her background. She said teachers threw her schoolbag out of class and refused to check her homework, while students sang rhymes taunting her and other Dalit children. But as she grew up, the rhymes increasingly turned into threats of sexual violence, Mashaal told Refinery29. By the age of 16, she began attending Dalit-community solidarity meetings to examine how she could protect herself. For Dalit victims of sexual violence, Marshaal said, response from police officers is often "How can you have been raped? You’re a Dalit — touching you would make anyone spiritually impure." And Mashaal was far from alone. A study by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights found that more than half of Dalit women had suffered physical assault. More than 46% have suffered sexual harassment. Twenty-three percent have said they had been raped.
That attitude in India, plus the country's attitude toward rape in general, were both reasons Mashaal and others decided to mobilize and create Dalit Women Fight. This month, the group has been traveling across North America to raise awareness to the issues Dalit women face, finding allies in the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements. Mashaal said the group is speaking out against what they see as the systemic failures of the Indian government to break the silence of caste apartheid and caste-based rape. Dalit Women Fight was the brainchild of the All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum, created around the time of the brutal Delhi bus rape. On December 16, 2012, six men brutally raped and beat a 23-year-old student on a moving bus in Delhi. The victim, who became widely known as Nirbhaya, later died of her injuries, and the horrific case made headlines around the world. It drew much-needed attention to the issue of rape in India, Mashaal said. "Nirbhaya's gang rape on a moving bus in New Delhi rocked the world. She was flown abroad for surgery; documentaries were made about her story to highlight the issue of gender-based sexual violence in India," said Mashaal. "But what about Dalit women’s rapes that occur due to the intersectionality of gender, caste, and class? These rapes are not even allowed to be registered in police stations." Mashaal told Refinery29 how in August 2013, Kaafee, a 22-year-old Dalit woman who was studying to be a teacher, was abducted on her way to take an examination. The next day, Kaafee was found dead. She had been raped, and had cigarette burn marks all over her body, Mashaal said. "We had had enough. We sat outside the government hospital for four days with her body. Our pledge was that we would not move until the police registers [the fact] that she had been raped, tortured, and murdered," Mashaal said. But the police maintained that Kaafee had committed suicide, and refused to even allow a medical autopsy, Mashaal said. "I don’t think Kaafee or thousands of other Dalit girls like her, will ever receive justice," she added.

For Dalit victims, the response from police often is: 'How can you have been raped? You’re a Dalit — touching you would make anyone spiritually impure.'

Manisha Mashaal, Dalit Women Fight
And it isn't only sexual-based harassment that Dalit people face. On October 8, a Dalit couple were reportedly stripped by the police in Greater Noida and paraded naked around because they insisted on registering a police report for alleged robbery, the International Business Times reported. Dalit Women Fight members told Refinery29 that caste-based discrimination is not just relegated to far-flung villages. They said the oppression is just as apparent in the massive metropolises of India. Anjum Singh, a 36-year-old Dalit woman, was born and raised in the bustling city of New Delhi, the capital of India. Her family has lived there for seven generations. "New Delhi may have been revamped through the construction of giant malls and flyovers, but the mindset of people has not altered," Singh told Refinery29. "They still refer to us as untouchables. Our neighborhoods are considered impure, we are not allowed in temples belonging to upper-caste people, and we are not allowed the basic dignity of eating or drinking with non-Dalits."
Photo: Courtesy of Sushma Raj.
Sushma Raj, a Dalit woman, said she had to fight her own parents to attend school rather than be married off as a child.
Singh joined Dalit Women Fight and said that a fact-finding mission by the group uncovered that during a two-month period, more than 40 cases of caste-based sexual violence went unreported in the state of Haryana. The majority of people in Harayana belong to the Jat caste, one of the dominant castes, according to to The Indian Express. "The saying goes that a Jat man cannot know what his land tastes like until he tastes the Dalit women living there," Mashaal told Refinery29. "It is not uncommon for Dalit brides to sleep with their landlords rather than their husbands on the first night after their marriage." Mashaal and Singh, along with other Dalit Women Fight members, question why ending sexual violence against Dalit women is not a priority for the Indian government or the Indian media. "When we sit in protest, whether this is in New Delhi or in the village of Badarpur, no non-Dalit women show solidarity with us," said Mashaal. "If they show up to a sit-in or a protest, it is to ask us why we are being so dramatic or to try and make us reach a compromise with the authorities in order to silence us." Sushma Raj, another Dalit woman who came to the United States to raise awareness, is one of the youngest members at 25 years old. Raj is a fighter; her first major battle was against her own parents, who didn’t support her education. "They said, 'What will education do for you? It’s better to sit at home and get married,'" Raj told Refinery29. But Raj said she believed that a life where she could not demand change was not a life worth living, so she went on a hunger strike. "I told them they can either let me die or let me go to school," Raj said.

[My parents] said, 'What will education do for you? It’s better to sit at home and get married.'

Sushma Raj, Dalit Women Fight
For four years, she cycled 22 miles to school each day. She also began tutoring other Dalit students in the community, and eventually was hired as a schoolteacher. "Once my parents realized the difference education can make on life, and the difference women like me can make on the Dalit community, they fully began to support me," Raj said. "My mother’s only concern was my marriage, but that’s a worldwide problem, isn't it?" Raj now lives in Patna with her husband, and they both work for the Dalit community. She is involved in fact-finding missions to learn more about rape cases, create reports, and ensure that authorities properly register and investigate these incidents. But Dalit women often come up against significant obstacles in a system they believe is designed to work against them, activists said. Sanghapali Aruna, 34, is a Dalit activist who is also part of the Dalit Women Fight campaign.
Photo: Courtesy of Sanghapali Aruna.
Sanghapali Aruna said that after learning that she was from the Dalit caste, a job interviewer at one of India's big marketing firms rescinded his offer. Since then, she has worked as an activist.
Aruna said that her father is also a Dalit activist, and growing up, she was constantly taught to be proud of her identity and caste. After a job interview at one of India’s leading marketing firms, she said the interviewer asked her what caste she belonged to after congratulating her for getting the job. Aruna said she proudly told him she was from the Dalit community. "The interviewer didn’t say anything, but I could tell he was taken aback. He took back the job offer and told me to wait for his phone call while he makes a final decision," Aruna said. She never received that call, or that job. But she did become involved in Dalit activism. She questions India's government on why Dalit women’s rapes are not even granted the same attention that non-Dalit rapes receive, which is hardly enough as it is. "Talking about rape in India without talking about caste-based sexual violence is akin to talking about slavery in America without talking about black people," Aruna said. Dalit Women Fight activists arrived in San Francisco on September 29, just two days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given a speech in nearby San Jose. "India has moved on from scriptures to satellites," Modi said in his speech. "The world has started to believe that the 21st century belongs to India." But Dalit women say that until caste-based discrimination and violence are eliminated, India cannot move forward. "Forget Modi. Currently, even local police officers are not willing to give us an audience. When we take a rape case to them, they say, 'This girl was not raped, she willingly had sexual relations and now wants to bribe the upper caste for money,' or 'Why would an upper-caste man touch a Dalit?' or they write it off as a suicide," Mashaal said. "Neither Modi nor the non-Dalit population of India is willing to admit the existence of caste-based sexual violence, much less address it," she added.

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