Living At The Intersections of Caste and Gender: The Struggle for Social Acceptance

Picture Credit: The Hindu

The very foundation of a democratic society are the values of equality and liberty. Historically, the Indian society has restricted such universal values like equality only to certain sections of the society. Marginalised communities have always had to either fight against injustices meted out to them or had to succumb to it. With the rise of social movements against injustices, at present more number of groups and communities have now been incorporated into the fabric of democratic institutions in society. The practice of a rights-based approach is required for organising the society. This rights-based approach deliberately and explicitly focuses on the people achieving the minimum conditions for living with dignity leading to a greater degree of equality. Marginalised communities have revolted against such injustices because the only way to go against the increasing violence on the weak by the powerful is by questioning those structures of injustices which have perpetuated for long and have blatantly ridiculed equality.

The Indian Constitution in its Preamble declares the values like Liberty and Equality which forms the basis of the document. Article 16(4) in the Indian Constitution aims to represent the marginalised in a greater way in public life through reservation in government services. However, focusing only on the “public” cannot help in achieving the emancipatory objectives like equal opportunity in politics, education, employment, access to healthcare and most importantly living with dignity with full implementation of basic human rights. Such objectives can only be achieved when the “private” domain is reformed where many injustices arise. Oppressive systems like caste and patriarchy often shape the life of the individuals and disassociates them from resources and opportunities which further marginalises them and makes them more vulnerable.

The practice of dividing the society based on caste crossed the boundaries of profession and shaped the way of life of individuals within the system in every aspect that is possible. Often it led to violence being inflicted on the people from the Dalit community and they became the subject of barbaric practices. In India, the hegemony of patriarchal gender binaries along with caste based discrimination often leads to systematic violence. In spite of ancient Indian mythological texts depicting numerous instances of multiple gender identities especially trans folx, modern Indian society cannot overcome its ‘hangover’ of colonial modernity. Thus, people belonging to the transgender community often end up being treated not at par with their cis counterparts. Now the question arises how do these two identities (caste and gender) play a role together? The answer is given by the intersectionality framework.

Indian feminists from marginalised groups have always stressed upon an intersectional approach to address and understand their situation. For instance, Ruth Manorama says that Dalit people have to bear the burden of caste, class and gender and supports an intersectional approach while accounting the several subordinate identities that shape their experiences. Therefore, in India, the lives of people who belong to Dalit communities and identify themselves as trans are marred with oppression arising out of both casteist and transphobic ideology.

Dalit transgender people have the lived experience of being isolated and harmed the most, they bear the brunt of what is called double discrimination. Trans people who belong to Dalit communities are unable to get employment or receive formal education because from their very birth they are set behind others by the cis-heteronormativ upper caste dominated society. For example, Grace Banu, a Dalit trans activist talks about how the stories of her community were mostly penned down by their oppressors and mostly written to reinforce phobias and stigmas against them. She then talks about how they are turned away from so-called “respectable” jobs because of their identity. Even though she is the first transgender engineering graduate in India, she had to wait for a year to get a job because most places did not want to hire her for her Dalit and transgender identity.

Casteism and transphobia are often seen as distinct systems of oppression intersecting with each other. But can transphobia itself sometimes blur this line of distinction? Dalit trans activist and artist Living Smile Vidya says, “Transphobia is a type of brahminism. It gives us no other option but to do “dirty” jobs like sex work and begging and then calls us “dirty”, just like caste system did with dalits.” Vidya draws on the fact that transphobia is another type of caste structure which marginalises trans people as the untouchable.

Standing at the intersection of caste and diverse notions of gender, they receive little to no aid from the government in terms of education, social security, employment etc. During the pandemic induced lockdown millions of trans people in India received very small to almost no aid for sustenance. Many HIV Positive transgender persons who have to resort to sex work for their livelihood even could not get access to antiretroviral therapy during the lockdown. With no state intervention and support, the community faced the greatest of dearth during the pandemic which further threatened their already scarce health and financial security.

The emphasis on and demand for gender and caste based reservation by Dalit trans people like Living Smile Vidya so that they are able to receive equal opportunities and not only savarna transgender people and Dalit men. Dalit trans activists like Grace Banu, are always fighting for the implementation of affirmative laws and their emphasis on such laws as the need of the hour is what makes their movement stronger. The presence of social movements against the atrocities meted out to them have stayed for a longer a time and with its progress Dalit trans people have now been able to come out and establish themselves. Only with such social movements against the powerful will they be able to achieve a life with equality and dignity.

Written by: Debarati Ganguly and Manish Dutta

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