How Savarna feminism is eroding the discourse on the Hathras case?

By Pragathi Ravi

On September 14, 2020, a 19-year-old Dalit woman was brutally gang-raped by four Thakur men in Uttar Pradesh, where she later succumbed to her injuries. This is but an isolated incident when it comes to India’s long history of caste-based violence and the continued impunity the perpetrators are granted. The exclusion of the caste aspect in this latest display of sexual violence is a massive disservice to those from marginalised backgrounds who shoulder the evidence of everyday caste-based discrimination.

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paper titled ‘The Continuing practice of Untouchability in India’ authored by Amit Thorat and Omkar Joshi talks about the everyday presence of casteism in India. In their survey of 42,000 households, 50-55% of Brahmanical families admitted to practising untouchability and restricted the entry into their houses which allegedly bore associations with purity and religious sanctity. It was found that people who were exposed to graduate or college education, the odds of practising untouchability fell by 23-24%. The practice was predominantly prevalent in northern India, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Additionally, 18% Muslims, 35% Jains and 20% Sikhs were also practitioners of the illegal custom. Therefore, dismissing caste or caste-based violence as a ‘thing of the past’ does a massive disservice.

Rape as a political tool 

Rape or sexual violence has seldom been about sex and more about establishing dominance or control. It demonstrates control over the vulnerable and is often exercised from a position of authority. The instances of rape are especially high in countries where patriarchy is rampant, or where men occupy all positions of power. In an article titled ‘Rape is about power, not sex’, the author stated that rapes are unlikely to happen in a society where men and women are more equal; as opposed to societies where political and religious affiliations govern authority.

Rape has been deployed as a means to incur into cultural and political boundaries, especially against racially and socially oppressed castes. The Rwandan genocide evidenced this. In one of the most brutal instances of ethnic cleansing, the populous majority of Hutus slaughtered over 8 lakh Tutsis, who belonged to the minority community, within a span of 100 days. As per a report by The Washington Post, over 2.5 lakh women were raped in the 100 days.

Author Erin. K. Baines in her paper titled ‘Body Politics and the Rwandan Crisis’ stated that Hutu extremists used the “genocide as a strategic attempt to link or articulate individual bodies with the body politics”. She went on to explain what ownership of body meant in a society dictated by the Catholic Church which took great pleasure in policing women’s bodies and dispersing notions of ‘virginal purity’ or ‘reproductive prowess’. While the killings were political, the Hutus sought to exploit the private or domestic spaces of Tutsis; and resorted to gain sexual and reproductive control over the women.

This erased the individuality afforded to Tutsi women and homogenized them as a collective of Tutsi bodies to be dominated. This was reflective of the ingrained patriarchy in the Rwandan society, where women were controlled as “sexual and cultural markers of national boundaries”; (Baines. E. K, 2003) which furthered the Hutu’s obsessions to invade into their cultural boundary by ‘laying claim to women’s bodies’. In an age where women were seen as ‘mothers of the nation’, Hutus sought to exploit that traditionality or sexuality that families and the Church fought so hard to protect. They purged the identity of Tutsi women to establish Hutu superiority.

Dominant castes and legal impunity 

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the conviction rate of rapes in India is less than 30%; while 90% of the cases end in acquittal. The incidents of sexual violence against Scheduled Caste women rose by 37% since 2016. The report also flagged that although the crimes against SC women were reported, the subsequent investigation and prosecution was abysmally low. Over 60% of the crimes against women from marginalised backgrounds have ended in the accused being acquitted. Additionally, 32.5% of the crimes against SC, ST women were not registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 between 2009 and 2018.

Dalit women are doubly disadvantaged both by caste and gender, the former being something Savarna feminists conveniently exclude in their advocacy for respite. A report by India Spend flagged that these women are also regarded as “easy pawns for revenge in fights between men”. Families belonging to marginalized castes have complained about facing obstacles at the first stage of legal redressal, where the police hostility amid FIR filing and inability to pay bribes have discouraged many from registering their complaints. Families also face pressure from para-statal agencies to withdraw complaints, especially in cases of sexual assault.

The dialogue on this was furthered by Dalit journalist and activist Cynthia Stephen in an article, where she spoke about the Indian #MeToo movement and how the general perception was that predominantly the victims were privileged women. This is untrue, as the voices of Dalit and other minority women have been snubbed for sometime now. Their struggle for autonomy, emancipation for caste barriers were more often than not, actively silenced.

Editor, writer Mimi Mondal says the movement was cemented on trust rather than evidence. Women trusted each other when it was ‘her-word-against-his’. This very privilege has not been afforded to marginalised women by ‘liberal feminists’ when the former is crying out against caste atrocities. Another distinguishing feature of the #MeToo movement was that all women who came out had faced some sort of harassment in their lifetime. Thus, can the mistrust surrounding caste-based discrimination, be attributed to how their privilege never allowed them to be discriminated against?

Savarna women dominate feminist narratives 

The discourse of feminism has almost always been dominated by the privileged or the ‘have’s’. In the West, this is in the form of white feminism doled out by the bourgeoisie white feminists, ignorant of the struggles of the socio-economically marginalised.

Closer home, this takes the form of Savarna or Brahmanical feminism; which has been appropriating the spaces cultivated for Dalit or Bahujan feminists by establishing a blanket ‘victimhood’. This has been deemed problematic by several, stating their selective outrage over sexual crimes. Christina Thomas Dhanraj terms this as the ‘empathy gap’, and slams their unwillingness to relate to a Dalit or Adivasi woman’s plight. The majority of feminist movements in India have been led by Savarna women, backed by significant class and caste privilege. The ideas surrounding speaking up against abusers, saying ‘no’ or ‘shattering the glass ceilings’ have been dictated by privileged women, snubbing the reality of minority women.

The foundations of feminism were built on equality, and this form of social isolation or exclusion in public spaces effaces that. There has been an effort by the Savarna feminists to include Dalit women’s voices in mainstream dialogue, however, this is inadequate. Mainstream feminist discourse in India has to stop treating the historical depravity of human rights to marginalised communities, as an aesthetic. The future of intersectional feminism has to rely on acknowledging the Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi feminist and reorienting movements to be more inclusive.


Pragathi Ravi is a freelance journalist based out of Bengaluru, Karnataka.