Mayawati: Caste Anxieties and Patriarchal Fears
Posted: 29 April 2012
Her roofless abode gives her a clear view of the fields and the village she guards over. She is my paternal family's deity, revered as a force of nature as are the scores of female gods of the Shudra, Atishudra and Adivasi cultures. Her free spirited nature echoes the attitude of another goddess in Siddalingaiah's narrative of village deities: one who refuses a temple with a door, saying, 'I would like to go and come as I please.' Within the timeless non-brahamincal world, female iconography is rendered in ways whereby it is 'her gaze' which is anxiously worried over, as it could mean, protection, forgiveness and peace.
From the 10th and 11th centuries AD onwards, with the onset of large scale temple building activities, female iconography begins to appear on temple panels. Here the female form is rendered through the brahmanical male gaze, though the imagery itself is not inspired by brahmin women. From Multan to Somnath, from Konark to Hoysala to Thanjavur temples, all of them bear sculptures that have been inspired by the temple-women, drawn almost exclusively from the shudra and atishudra castes. These visuals radiate the highly disciplined intellect and body literacy of these subjugated, ancestral dalitbahujan women. Throughout the ages, the collectives of temple-women were known to be rigorous knowledge producers, surpassing the productivity of the best universities, bequeathing to the subcontinent, civilization-sustaining bodies of knowledge. Yet, for us, the images are life size portrayals of women manacled by caste and patriarchy. Contemporary dalitbahujan women are often ambiguous about celebrating these images as immortal style icons of amazing grace and ability. This visual history highlights an ancient struggle in progress-- against caste, the father of all hegemonies.
Memory determines who we are and how we see the world. Our memory holds a vast cache of superimposed visuals from the primeval to the immediate. When I pause on the images of Mayawati's statues, I read an aura of liberation stemming from anti-caste and anti-patriarchal assertions. How can I not celebrate this moment in our visual history that has been self-represented?
While Hatshepsut's defaced statutes reveals the story of woman power and patriarchal fears, the verbal defacing of Mayawati's statues exists in a more complicated matrix of violence. Because hers is a story of anti-caste and female assertions colliding forcefully with ancient caste anxieties and patriarchal fears.
Media's bared fangs
Since the political rise of Mayawati, much before the statues became a topic, the mainstream media, as an eager patriarchal and upper caste participant has provided us an interesting opportunity to witness, document and analyze the intersection of caste and gender biases, displayed in carnival mode. Language as a register of violence is a good place to decode the oppressor's complex of fears and anxieties, especially if it is coming from elite sources. Ratna Mala in her article, Ambedkar and Media, gives us snapshots of how this process unfolds so as to intimidate an assertive marginalized community by demonizing their radical leaders.
The volume of material that has accumulated on a single dalit woman, Mayawati, is now a sizable archive for anti-caste scholars wishing to study language as a register of caste and gender violence.
The consistent caricaturing of Mayawati in the media is often received as caste stereotyping, it is rarely perceived and objected to as gender stereotyping as well. The message: The verbal humiliation of this woman leader is meant only for her and the dalits. No offense is meant to other Indian women by this blatant denigration. Otherwise, there would have been loud objections from women or feminist organizations, right?
At any point in time, Mayawati does not enter the public consciousness as a powerless person, which confounds the elite's perception of an orderly caste world. She even denies the liberal caste hindus their pretentious role as occasional patrons of caste victims. Hence they launch into attack mode, openly brandishing their caste and gender prejudices. But here too, Mayawati does the unexpected, she neither recognizes their warring platforms nor accords them the status of worthy opponents. So we get a grotesque display of a one way media aggression against an unavailable Mayawati.
Patriarchy has No Gender – bell hooks
Mayawati's appearance, her choice of clothing, her marital status, her not being a mother -- essentially every social construct about the feminine has been used to diminish her personhood. These gender insults are dished out by men and women with claims of being liberal, modern, educated, intellectual, feminist and whathaveyou. How do they do it? How do they manage to not self-censor themselves from disrespecting a woman from such public platforms as TV studios and news columns? They are unfettered by modern norms, Mayawati's identity as a woman does not present an obstacle to their exhibition of patriarchal incivility. Though the disrespectful language targets her gender, there are no consequences, no call for decorum, no demand for the respect due to a citizen who is a woman. Their caste allows them the freedom to reveal and revel in, in full public view, their natural barbaric state of misogynistic patriarchy.
Other than Mayawati there are at least 4-5 women currently occupying the public sphere as powerful politicians. None of them are subjected to any kind of verbal humiliation that would denigrate their person. They all belong to upper castes.
This differential treatment of women politicians by the Indian elite in TV studios, press rooms and academia is then clearly focused on Mayawati's caste identity.
We could easily conclude, caste supersedes gender when the object of disrespect is a dalit woman. But not all dalit women elicit such a reaction from them. Ritualized caste violence on dalit women rarely makes it as a deadly serious topic of discussion in the media. On the rare occasion it does, these civilized folks in the media will never verbally humiliate a dalit woman victim of such atrocities. None of them will be caught dead denigrating her in public. Here it would appear like their reactions nervously acknowledge both caste and gender. Thanks to the anti-caste movements including the creation of the SC/ST POA Act.
Let's order the above upper caste reactions and see what pattern emerges:
Caste and gender are both packed into respectful gear when the object of conversation is an upper caste woman in power.
Caste and gender are nervously acknowledged when the conversation is about a dalit woman victim.
Caste displaces gender when the conversation is about Mayawati, a powerful dalit woman.What underscores these startling switches?
Power. Power that should never have been in the hands of a woman from an untouchable caste.
Consequently, it is the fear of power, fear of the dalit-woman-with-power that pretty much motivates the upper caste narratives on all things Mayawati.
When the dalit community reacts to the disrespect of a woman leader, they are usually reacting to the caste offense but not so categorically against the tightly associated gender offense. Here is the cue for the anti-caste movements to work out new (and fine tune existing) mechanisms to counter the fluidity of caste plus gender discrimination.
It has to be noted here, along with upper caste men, women writers, academics, politicians and media women participate enthusiastically in this continuous caste and gender demonization of a dalit woman leader. The ease with which they use offensive language while introducing, mediating or discussing topics related to Mayawati, informs the world that there is not even a pretense of sisterhood with dalit women (outside of victim status). This indicates one of the two possibilities: illiteracy about women's rights, or the superficial adaptation of feminist stands. Literacy in feminism has not imparted any critical ability to sensitize, address and rectify caste plus gender oppression that plagues the majority of women in the subcontinent. At least it does not seem to have any effect on the evidently college and university educated women who hold forth on Mayawati in the media.
Women of non-dominant castes have little to benefit from superficial, and borrowed feminist assertions, as gender crimes and discrimination against us are rarely a function of gender alone. It invariably co-sediments with caste, and caste as dalitbahujan intellectuals have repeatedly explained, is a concentrate of several oppressive factors. That we exist in a caste ecosystem and it is the interconnectedness of oppressions which needs engagement seems not to register in the feminist discourse, if there is one at all.
Anti-caste assertions have traditionally approached caste as an interjunction of gender, religious, class and spatial oppressions, therefore it is well placed to reinforce gender rights and protections. Feminism that is rooted in the anti-caste philosophy has to work more vigorously towards ensuring safe, dignified and respectful space for women of non-dominant castes.
Resistance to empowerment
Media's one sided assault on Mayawati, the person, peels open for us, the layers that camouflage the structural connections to ritualized as well as everyday violence of caste and gender on dalit women, occuring throughout caste society. To mistake this media aggression as a story in a vacuum, is flawed reasoning. To imagine that this verbal violence is disconnected from the physical violence on Krishnaveni and other dalit women political leaders at the Panchayat level, is fragmented reasoning. To distance this demonization of one dalit woman from the boycott of dalit women cooks and dalit women anganwadi workers by upper caste school children, all over the country, is to miss seeing the nervous system that sustains the whole body of caste.
From TV studios to school kitchens, the violent response is towards the process of empowerment of dalit women.
Therefore when the verbal violence against a powerful dalit woman like Mayawati, by the brahmanical elites, goes unchallenged, it means we are opting to be indifferent spectators to the entire process of caste and gender violence against all dalit women associated with any or the smallest signs of empowerment. And more significantly, we'll lose an opportunity to analyze the caste and patriarchal biases in our society which connects the brahamincal elites in cosmopolitan cities to the upper caste village goons.
Contexting Mayawati for ourselves
The dalitbahujan internal critique of Mayawati as a political leader has always been far more stringent and powerful than anything the non-dalitbahujan can come up with. But this may not be disseminating as easily as the crass mainstream criticism. In this confusing haze of introspection within dalit movements and abuse from the upper caste elites, let it not be said, women like me failed to transmit effectively the struggles of contemporary dalitbahujan women leaders. Let it not be said, that we allowed only the dominant castes' verbal and real sledgehammers to be heard. Let it also not be said, that we allowed introspection to slip into self-criticism, meaning trying to make ourselves more acceptable to others, that we participated in the erasure of the very real affirmations of Mayawati as an able politician.
In her profession, Mayawati is unmatched-- as an administrator, in her calm capacity to wield power, to enforce law, to maintain peace, to ensure development, and in her deep commitment to change the course of a 3,000 year old river of oppression. A river so loaded with ancient detritus, gushing forth with the massive force of collective upper caste greed, which forever leaves the dreams of the untouchables, and other marginalized gasping for air, to survive.
If Hateshepsut replaced military conquests with trade, Mayawati upturned the way development proceeds. She took the bottom up route, an approach few political leaders have had the courage to take. It is not the statues and monuments which make her a dalit leader, it is not even the first ever paved roads, drains and concrete houses in the Ambedkar villages in UP, or the numerous empowering schemes for girls and women under her leadership, rather it is her phenomenally consistent ability to place the most oppressed human, the dalit, in the center of her politics, never ever budging to the dominant castes' colossal pressure tactics.
This political leader who is a woman and a dalit has our respect for what she has achieved so far, and also bears the burden of our expectations of her to emerge as a historic marker for peace, progress and dignity. She, changed the way we dream. Not as individual battles won, but with wins on a scale that only power at the helm of affairs can do.
As Kuffir said, following the 2012 UP election results, 'There's no way Mayawati is going to lose, and I mean that in too many ways, even if she gets lesser seats. She has already won visibility through a self-respect programme that people will always remember and use that as a benchmark to measure other parties.'
Across time, images do pay tribute to each other, my tribute is only in words: Mayawati, the anti-caste leader.
1. Village Deities – Siddalingaiah
2. Ambedkar and Media - Ratna Mala
3. Ways of Seeing - John Berger
4. Nityasumangali, devadasi tradition in South India - Saskia C. Kersenboom
5. Encyclopedia of Indian women through the ages, the medieval ages - Simmi Jain
6. Teaching crtical thinking, practical wisdom - bell hooks
7. From Limca books to Forbes Magazine - Nilesh Kumar