-by Manisha Arya

The following article is part of a two-part series. The previous article can be found here.

III. Prominent Feminist Theory and Intersection of Caste, class and Gender in India

Caste system as an institution is very peculiar to India. On one hand where the women across world face oppression under patriarchy by virtue of them being women, Dalit women in India due to their caste face oppression at multiple levels which can be said to be similar to oppression faced by Black women due to their race. In this section, I am applying the theories on rape propounded by Liberal, Marxist, Radical and Black Feminist and to see how parallel these theories are with Dalit Feminism.

As Susan Brownmiller states “rape is inspired not by sexual stimuli but by political motivation to degrade and dominate.”[1]Rape happens because men want to control women in the patriarchal society.[2] It is “a deliberate, hostile, violent act of degradation and possession on the part of a would-be conqueror, designed to intimidate and inspire fear.[3] Rape is never individualistic in nature, that is, rapist never rapes an individual but members of a class; the act of rape therefore becomes a reminder of the class of both the raped and the rapist.[4]

A. Liberal Feminist Theory

In aftermath of Susan Brownmiller’s book ‘Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape’, there were demands for reform in laws relating to rape. Liberal feminism being the most dominant of the women’s movement, became the foundation to the reforms in rape law which were based on  ideology of privacy, autonomy, and individual choice.[5] Liberal theory defined ‘consent’ as the basis of differentiating between a lawful or unlawful conduct[6]; sexual coercion was viewed as individual and gender neutral rather than institutional and sex specific; rape was characterized as violence as opposed to sex (with the adoption of the sexual assault and battery approach to legislative reform).[7]

This approach of assumed ‘formal equality’ by liberals does not take into consideration any kind of power equation that exists in patriarchal society. They focus on objectivity and neutrality in law, which in turn is always oppressive to women. Dalit feminism focuses upon dismantling the caste structure and oppression that Dalit women face due to both patriarchy and caste notions.[8] Therefore, the liberal feminist’s approach towards rape cannot be in coherence with the approach of Dalit feminists.

B. Marxist Feminist Theory

The Marxist approach to women’s subordination or oppression is from a materialist standpoint. According to materialist conception, the human life sustains on production and reproduction. Production of the ‘means of existence’ and necessary for that production, simultaneous reproduction of human beings.[9] The central argument to Marxist’s theory of women oppression is the relationship between the sexual division of labor and mode of production. Engels argues that women and men enjoyed equal status in society until the development of private property.[10] With private property the requirement of labor increased and to fulfill this requirement, maximum utilization of women’s reproductive potential was necessary.[11]But this theory does not fully hold true in contemporary socio-economic setting where women are participating in work force outside home. One of the ways in which men sustain their power in patriarchy is by controlling means and modes of production. This control over means and modes of production demands that women have limited access to the economic resources. This limitation on access to resources is put by making women dependent on their men, placing them into jobs which pay less or are highly exploitative like pornography or prostitution and, by making working spaces unsafe for women putting women in fear of sexual assault.

The Dalit women like Dalit men have always participated in workforce due to their economic conditions. Even with the mobilization of lower castes and adoption of upper caste gender norms, Dalit women continued to work outside their home. Dalits have been used for their labor by upper caste men because it comes at a cheaper price and Dalit worker have no autonomy over the manner of work. The labor of Dalit women comes at a price cheaper than Dalit men, thus upper castes do not have an intention of keeping them out of labor force, to hold their economic status. However, they have an interest in maintaining the status quo, therefore, the demands in increase of wages or better working conditions are often retaliated by sexual assault on Dalit women.

Dalit feminism can use Marxist analysis of women oppression to challenge their subordination in work force which is operated through class and caste dynamics. Specifically, on rape, even though sexual assault is one of the means by which upper caste maintain their economic status quo, it cannot be said to be the only reason. The most prominent reason for rape of Dalit women is the ‘presumption’ of the right to sexual access of Dalit women by upper caste patriarchal ideology.

C. Radical Feminist Theory

Unlike Liberal feminists, radical feminists do not assume equality. They argue that there exists a power imbalance between men and women which is a result of the greater economic and social power exerted by men in the private spheres.[12]According to a  radical feminist, both male and female sexualities are defined by patriarchy and are socially constructed to fit in the patriarchal gender norms.[13] Radical feminist equate rape with heterosexual sex, but this is not to say that they consider all sex to be rape. They critique the notion of ‘consent’ defining an act to be rape or not rape because in patriarchal society where male dominance is prevalent women are in reality not free to give consent. Secondly, they find the argument of ‘rape being an act of violence’ problematic because according to them, this is merely a ground to affirm heterosexuality while rejecting violence.[14]. Consent can be given on many pretexts or not be given at all, but the definition of consent is interpreted by male perception of women’s sexuality therefore excluding the reality of rape for women.

Dalit feminism, like radical feminism, argues that there exists power inequality between sexes, further, also between castes. In upper caste conception of sexuality of Dalit women, consent does not matter. For them Dalit women do not have agency to consent, the consent is either presumed or imposed. However, Dalit feminism does see rape of Dalit women as caste violence perpetrated specifically to Dalit women.

D. Black Feminist Theory

Black feminism as a school emerged due to non-consideration of impact of race on black women by the mainstream feminist groups. While dealing with black feminism it is important to look at the positioning of Black women in slavery. Black women as slaves were exploited for their labor and as a reproducer.[15] The body of Black woman belonged to her white master and there was no question of right to refusal. Blacks did not have any legal rights and thus there was no question of rape.[16]Any kind of retaliation to the white male rule was punished with violence. Forced sexual exploitation of Black women through controlling her reproductive system meant a steady supply of slave babies, who after coming to age could either be sold or put to work.[17] This sexual exploitation was also necessary for economic flourishment of whites which in turn leads to economic subordination of Blacks.[18]

The mainstream feminists did not take into consideration the effect of intersection of patriarchy and race on Black women. Black women were always seen as ‘other’ in feminist movements as their demands due to their socio-economic conditions were different from white feminists. In patriarchy the sexuality of black women was defined in juxtaposition of white women,constructing the white women to be morally passive-needing protection and Black women to be immoral, promiscuous and hypersexual.[19]

For them to consider rape law as a reflection of male control over female sexuality is an over simplification for women of color.[20] Crenshaw argues that rape laws reflect white regulation of white female sexuality.  Protection of Black women’s chastity was never the central object of law as it presumed them to be non-chaste. The singular focus on rape as a reflection of male power over female sexuality tends to ignore the use of rape as a weapon of racial terror. The act of Black women’s rape by white men is not an act of raping women generally, but Black women specifically. The effect on them was two-fold, on one hand their femaleness made them sexually vulnerable to racist domination while their Blackness effectively denied them any protection and on the other, this male power dynamics  played a role in judicial system where conviction of white men for raping Black women was a rarity.[21]

Comparing caste with race keeping gender as the basis, it can be seen that the inequalities in caste are illuminated in the same ways as those of race.[22] Firstly, there is clear asymmetry of power equation in caste system and in race, where upper caste men and white men, respectively, have controlling power over the Dalit women and Black women. Secondly, the manner in which impurity in assigned in both of these institutions is through sexuality of women. Dalit women’s sexuality like Black women is constructed in comparison to the women of higher status, that is to say, Dalit women are seen immoral in contrast with upper caste ‘pure’ women. Thirdly, economic and reproductive labor of both Dalit women and Black women are exploited in similar manner. As mentioned above in thearticle, it was a tradition in marriage to bring along a Dalit woman to work as housemaid and be a mistress to the husband. The children born out of these relations were considered a separate caste and were further put in labor. This is similar to Black women being exploited to produce babies which could be sold as slave or put as labor. Fourthly, the act of rape on Dalit women and Black women by men in power has been a specifically targeted act.

However, when it comes to rape laws in India, the legislature has considered the special needs for protection of Dalits and thus has created laws specifically giving legal rights to Dalits. In these laws, there are special provisions made for protection of women from sexual assault by upper caste men. This is in contrast to the laws in US which assume formal equality of all races. However, the attitude of judicial system towards both groups has been the same.

Dalit feminism has common features with Black Feminism. The origin of both of these feminisms began as a divergence from main stream feminism, questioning the main stream feminism and creating a different approach for themselves. The socio- economic conditions and impact of power dynamics on Dalit women is similar to Black women.

Dalit feminism, though not a concrete theory in itself as of now, can adopt the concepts and theories of Black Feminism to take a step further in its proliferation.

IV. Conclusion

We can see that Dalit women face triple oppression under the intersection of caste, class and gender. The concerns of Dalit women were ignored by both the mainstream feminist movements and the Dalit movements, resulting in branching out of Dalit Feminism as a separate school. I am of the opinion that Dalit feminism had place deep focus on the consciousness raising. The experiences of Dalit women lack the analysis from a practical reasoning perspective which could lead to the theorization of Dalit feminism.

And the Indian laws, even though formally equal in text, are in reality governed by patriarchal caste-based norms. Even when a special law has been enacted to provide special rights to Dalits, the delivery of their legal rights remains unjust. Courts are still dominated by upper caste men who are accomplice in the maintenance of caste system. Further, the reasoning of the judgments still focuses on moral conception of rape which harms the dignity and modesty of the women.[23] We can also see a link between the prominent feminist theories and Dalit feminism. From this part, I have concluded that Dalit Feminism has close links with Black Feminism, the origin of these schools of feminism; the socio-economic condition of Black and Dalit women is very common. Dalit feminism not having a concreate base can base its theories with the help of already existing theories in Black feminism.

The views are personal.



Manisha Arya holds a law degree from National Law School of India University, Bangalore. Her area of interest lie in women rights, gender rights, caste rights, intersection and education.

[1] Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (first published1975, Ballantine 1975) 15.

[2] ibid 25.

[3] Brownmiller (n 1) 391.

[4] Brownmiller (n 1) 391.

[5] Morrison Torrey, Feminist Legal Scholarship on Rape: A Maturing Look at One Form of Violence Against Women (1987) 2 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L 35, 40.

[6] Susan Estrich, Real Rape (first published in 1987 Harvard University Press, 1987) 73.

[7] Martha Chamallas, Consent, Equality, and the Legal Contract of Sexual Conduct (1988) 61 SCLR, 777, 781.

[8] Smita Narula, ‘Equal by Law, Unequal by Caste: The “Untouchable” Condition in Critical Race Perspective (2008) Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper Series 8-30/2008, 51.

[9] Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (first published in 1982, Penguin 1982) 10.

[10] ibid 11.

[11] Engels (n 9) 92.

[12] Catharine A. MacKinnon, ‘Difference and Dominance’, Feminism Modified, 32-45, (1987).

[13] Catharine MacKinnon, Towards a Feminist Theory of State (first published 1989), 173.

[14] Ibid. The author argues this because, rape as a definition can only be committed by men on women. This definition ignores the existence of same sex relationships thus affirms heterosexuality.

[15] Estrich (n 6) 153.

[16] Brownmiller (n 1) 142.

[17] There was no difference between full-blooded slave children and mulatto slave children.

[18] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (first published in 1948, Routledge 2002), 145.

[19] ibid 151.

[20] Torrey (n 5) 40.

[21] Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine’ (1989) 1 UCLF 139, 157-159.

[22] Andre Beteille, ‘Race, Caste, Gender’ (1990) 25 Man 489, 491.

[23]Dinesh v. State of Rajasthan, MANU/SC/8078/2006.



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