Voices from the Subaltern
Education and Empowerment
Education and Empowerment
Among Rural Dalit (Untouchable) Women
Date: 1/31/99; Revised: 2/26/03
Sangamma, a Dalit woman in her mid-30s, is a worried mother of four children who looks much older for her age. Due to lack of employment and housing, it is very difficult for her to provide even the basic essentials for her three young sons, seven to 11 years of age. She became a widow four years ago after her husband, a migrant labourer who rarely sent money home, died of alcoholism. Two years prior, her eldest son was forced to drop out of school to work as a bonded labourer for a local landowner in her village, as her 13 year old daughter and eldest child got married. Sangamma is now the grandmother of a baby girl born by her daughter.
The issues of poverty and fertility are intricately linked for Sangamma and over a hundred million other poor Dalit women located at the bottom of class, caste, and gender hierarchies in India. Dalits are the so-called "outcaste" or "Untouchable" groups regarded as polluting to caste Hindus. Dalits constitute 15 to 20 percent of India's population, but the greater numbers of them were denied basic human rights and education for over a thousand years under the Hindu caste system.
Census figures show that over half of the Dalit work force was landless agricultural labourers, compared to 26 percent of the non-Dalit work force. A number of studies have revealed that Dalit women make up a large number of the professional sex workers, and that 90 percent of those who die of starvation and attendant diseases are Dalits. Their untouchability and poverty support each other - their Untouchable status accentuates their economic exploitation and their poverty strengthen their “polluting” social status. As part of a triply oppressed group, rural Dalit women are subjected to multiple forms of discrimination including unemployment, menial wages, poverty, non-literacy, caste-based discrimination, domestic violence, family bias in favour of sons, and other forms of exploitation.
Even though Dalit women comprise one of the most socially oppressed and economically deprived sections of Indian society, the vast majority of research on rural South Asian women or rural women in India seldom identify Dalit women as a specific or distinct grouping. There is a lack of research on Dalit women at the district level and with a focus on education and empowerment issues. Further, the extent to which caste still operates and influences development policy and practices in India remains largely un-investigated.
The main problems explored in this book are how caste and gender issues are related to the education and empowerment of rural Dalit women in India. The key focus is on the presentation of Dalit female voices regarding their educational experiences. Specifically, this study explores the nature and role of education and its relationship to empowerment among thirty-three poor, rural Dalit women and girls who volunteered to become involved with an explicit women's empowerment project, the Mahila Samakhya program in Karnataka (MSK), during the years 1994 to 1995. Dalit female respondents were interviewed who were involved in nonformal education programs conducted by Mahila Samakhya, including adult education for older women, and an all-girls hostel (Kendra).
In the South Asian context, women in general, and poor women in particular, have little or no access to and control over resources and decision-making. However, this does not mean that they are totally powerless. For centuries, women have tried to exercise power within the family and have used "their traditional position as workers, mothers, and wives, not only to influence their immediate environment, but also to expand their space."
Importantly, this book addresses a dualism in thinking of Dalit women either as victims of class, caste and gender oppression, or as empowered victors in a political struggle over education and employment reservation quotas for Dalits in India. The backlash in violence against Dalit women and men, is viewed by those on one side of the dualism as examples of further attempts to maintain class, caste and gender suppression, and by those on the other side, as indicative and reflective of Dalit assertiveness. Unfortunately, the one-sided opinions of both these groups tend to oversimplify and generalise issues around oppression as they relate to Dalit women's education and empowerment. This study avoids this dualism by exploring the many contradictions involved in these processes, and by focusing on the way these concepts are talked about by rural Dalit women themselves.
Context of Study
Worldwide, casteism is a significant issue. This study attempts to investigate why women who lie on the bottom of caste hierarchies, are among the most oppressed group in their societies. It argues that for Dalit women, caste empowerment is more important than gender empowerment, however both are important. Due to the continued existence of caste bias and apartheid in India, there is an urgent need for a Dalit curriculum to end casteism as well to develop and empower Dalit women and men.
One aspect of change is that societies cannot become transformed unless the individuals who constitute them also change themselves. In view of this, this book argues that a variety of important personal, gender and caste changes, or empowerment, are occurring among individual Dalit women in their family and village contexts. Further, these changes are more a result of the process of women's own involvement in a women's development program, and access to staff and support from others involved with the program, rather than access to the activities of nonformal education programs by themselves.
I became engaged in this study of Dalit women on account of a variety of personal and academic interests. In a way, it represents a lifelong interest in learning about caste and gender issues. I was deeply influenced by the economic hardships and gender oppressions my grandmothers and mother faced in relations with their husbands and male relatives. An increasing awareness of the importance for understanding these issues led to my pursuing studies of gender and caste issues in the field of education.
A female colleague and I lived in Bidar district, Karnataka, for five months and interacted with hundreds of rural Dalit women at the village level during this time. Working in conjunction with a female collaborator was vital in negotiating some of the limitations related to gender - for example, issues around female modesty and gaining access to translators and respondents, gossip around sexuality between the male researcher and female translators and interview subjects, and so on. I travelled and worked with groups of women while attending meetings and conducting interviews, or travelled separately when working with one female translator.
Particular efforts were made to "de-caste" and "de-class" ourselves in dress, appearance, behaviour, travel, and so on. For example, the researcher, collaborator, and interpreters wore simple clothes and no jewellery while visiting villages and during interviews, and were modest in personal consumption habits, such as using buses and other economical forms of transportation to visit villages. From a research perspective, I am most interested in understanding the way respondents' feel and think about education. The study is grounded in a feminist perspective in that the main purpose is to understand rural Dalit women's experiences in order to create more awareness of Dalit women's issues.
The theoretical framework of this study applies empowerment concepts in feminist literature and multicultural education discourse. The literature indicates agreement on the significance of gender and cultural issues in understanding the learning needs of women of colour. The inter-linkage of empowerment concepts in feminist and post-modernist educational discourse is, therefore, essential for understanding how concepts of empowerment are operationalised in the complex lives of poor, rural Dalit women. The framework further draws on subaltern studies, and women's and peasant resistance literature, to shape an understanding of female Dalits' agency in their restrictive environments.
The research design pays particular attention to addressing limitations of gender, class and caste. The Mahila Samakhya women's empowerment program was utilised to gain access to rural Dalit women, its main beneficiaries, in order to explore the multiple forms of oppression they face, and how they fashion and use their complex identities and realities to resist domination and negotiate greater access to education and economic resources for themselves and their families. One of the major limitations and strengths of the study is that any of the rich data and stories that would exemplify arguments and points were not utilised if they could be used to identify any person.
Given the focus of this study, ethnographic research methods were used to collect data of participants' experiences and participation in the nonformal education (NFE) activities of the MSK program. Research methods included participant observation; interviews with participants, parents, teachers, administrators; and content analysis of program documents. I would often visit respondents' houses in the villages, and observe their living arrangements, economic conditions, and relations with family and community members.
It was not possible to communicate with Dalit women unless accompanied by a female interpreter as none of the respondents spoke English, and they were all expected to observe strict rules regarding interaction with male strangers. We worked with two educated local women who serve as translators: Smita Mamta, a Christian unmarried woman with a master's degree, and Jasmine Metha, a young middle class/caste Hindu woman with a bachelor's degree.
A combination of sample strategies was used to select 33 Dalit women and girls, out of 7,000 women involved with the MSK program in the district, for structured, open-ended interviews. A snowball sample was used to gain access to a wide cross-section of female Dalits by interviewing three Dalit women in each of MSK’s programs. In most cases, two to three interviews were conducted with each respondent over a four-month period, and key questions were asked more than once to authenticate respondents' answers over time.
The main topics and sub-themes explored with Dalit respondents relate to their personal and family characteristics, caste, social and gender relations, and access to educational opportunity. Data was also collected on Dalit women's socio-economic background, how they got recruited into the program, what they learned, and how they benefited as a result of their participation, such as changes in sense of self or identity, and new social options. These themes allow for an understanding of the multiple oppressions individual Dalit women face in the household and village community, and the choices they and their families make concerning education. This awareness then provides a basis for further comprehension of issues around Dalit female education and its relations to empowerment among individual Dalit women and the sample group as a whole.
As discussed by Scott in Weapons of the Weak, it is difficult to obtain a full explanation of events and experiences from the poor who,
nearly always adopt a protective disguise in their relations with more powerful villagers and outsiders. This disguise is apparent both in their conformity and in their resistance... The "full transcript" of class relations in Sedaka is simply not ascertainable from the public interaction between rich and poor, powerful and weak. To move beyond the domain in which poses and dissimulation prevail, it has in fact been necessary to talk to the poor alone or when in small groups where they are among friends. Only then does one encounter that part of the full transcript that would, if openly declared in other contexts, jeopardise their livelihood.
The issues of power and being an outsider had to be carefully negotiated between MSK program staff and administration, on the one hand, and poor Dalit women, on the other. This resulted in a very hands-off approach towards the MSK Bidar district office and the Acting District Program Co-ordinator (DPC).
The research team did not depend on MSK program staff to select women to be interviewed and never visited a village with a program staff or vehicle. As a matter of principle, no interviews with respondents were conducted in the presence of caste Hindus or MSK staff, or held in MSK offices. We would contact the women independently when they came to the district office or training rooms in Bidar town, and arrange with independent transportation to visit them in their villages to conduct interviews. A sustained effort was made to talk to respondents in their homes, alone, and in small groups of friends.
Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that a great deal of information was not shared by the women, and it was difficult to probe areas which are uncomfortable for either respondents or translators to discuss; therefore the bulk of the data collected is of the kind that could be safely declared openly by poor Dalit women. However, it was possible to obtain a little of the "hidden transcript" of what respondents say "backstage", and this crucial data gives a hint at the kinds of intentions and feelings the women have regarding their lives, education and empowerment.
The study was designed to collect data on respondents' social and economic characteristics in order to understand the lives of rural Dalit women. The research seeks to understand how different Dalit women use their experiences as part of an education development project to reshape their lives, make their own choices and open new spaces for themselves. Even though they are subjected to multiple forms of oppression, this research challenges the notion that rural Dalit women are a powerless and invisible group.
This brief review looks at women’s development in India, subaltern studies, and empowerment concepts, as a way of framing some of the main concerns of the study. Due to limitations of space and time, it does not cover several fields which may have important implications for the present research including the social and cultural analysis of class and women's subordination, feminist analysis of schooling, and rural planning for women in India. Another important area of exclusion also relate to psychological studies of women's development.
Studies on Women's Education After 1950
The Indian women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s forced the government to recognize and document the special problems women faced and to make several social, political and economic concessions, for instance providing educational access and services for women. The government acknowledged women's educational inequalities in the report of the National Committee on Status of Women in India, which states, "denial of education and early marriage prevented the development of personality and rationality of women" The University Grants Commission responded to challenges and pressures generated by the Indian women's movement by granting twenty-two women's studies centers to different universities.
In research after 1950, feminist scholars have highlighted aspects of gender inequalities in government educational agencies and policies, in academia, and through gender bias in curriculum and sex role differentiation. Other studies discuss female access to the formal education system, and dropouts and curriculum irrelevance. Related studies discuss the impact of economic policies on women's education, women's struggle for equality, and women's new roles as a result of learning.
In addition to the vast number of studies on general roles and status of Indian women in relation to education, there is a small body of literature which center on rural and tribal women's experiences with formal education. These studies chronicle discrimination around similar issues as those of Indian women discussed above. The few studies of NFE, literacy, and vocational education for Indian women allude to comparable attitudes as those found in formal education, and to problems with delivery of services, while other studies describe more successful NFE programs.
As in formal education research, studies on women and nonformal education view women's education mainly in relation to family and children, and self-employment in small-scale production. Educational materials seldom, if ever, address the question of subordination and conflict at home or in the community. Further, caste issues are ignored.
A review of studies on Dalit women divulges that non-Dalits and males conduct a large percentage of the research. While they offer significant insights into the lives of Dalit women, many are replete with gender and caste bias. A small number of studies are being conducted and written by Dalits, including Dalit women, detailing aspects of Dalit culture, family and marriage; Dalit women’s social and economic status; in relation to development and the state; labor; agency and education; and violence against women. This research incorporates many of these studies and looks at education and empowerment issues from a Dalit feminist perspective
Subaltern Studies and Beyond
The term, subaltern, comes from a Marxist tradition of writing about society's underclass, especially regarding their resistance to capitalism, as opposed to their assumed passivity and resignation to their fate. For instance, Gramsci writes: “fatalism is nothing other than the clothing worn by real and active will when in a weak position.” He continues, the critical study of subaltern consciousness "must be a criticism of 'common sense,' basing itself initially, however on common sense... it is not a question of introducing from scratch a scientific form of thought into everyone's individual life, but of renovating and making 'critical' an already existing activity."
The main claim made by subaltern theorists is that colonialist, nationalist, and Marxist interpretations of Indian history have robbed the common people of their agency. They theorise that the elite in India played a dominant role but not a hegemonous one, so the possibility for subaltern agency always existed. As Gramsci points out, hegemony is never achieved and is always contested. Subalterns are autonomous historical actors who acted on their own since the elite did not lead them.
To rectify the elitist bias characteristic of much academic work in South Asian studies, subaltern theorists claim to rewrite history from the perspective of subaltern groups as a prelude to creating a new emancipatory politics. It is committed to writing people's (non-elite) history, and to the notion of social justice for the oppressed. O'Hanlon and Washbrook states the problem clearly:
Our present challenge lies precisely in understanding how the underclasses we wish to study are at once constructed in conflictual ways as subjects yet also find the means through struggle to realise themselves in coherent and subjectively centred ways as agents
Culture has become fundamental in many subaltern theorists' analysis and writing, and this is substantial in view of the fact that cultural issues have been neglected for so long in historical studies and labour analysis. Now, an increasing number of writers are considering caste as part of subaltern consciousness in their writing.
Departing from the subalternist school, this study does not consider culture as homogenous, since there is no one Dalit culture, and caste and class divide Dalits themselves. Nor is culture reified as it is recognised that Dalit culture is patriarchal. Even though a strong argument is made for the inclusion of a Dalit curriculum in education, such a curriculum must be sensitive to gender, culture, language, religion, sexuality, and other issues. Similarly, gender is not homogenised, and Dalit women are seen as having different experiences according to age, caste, and so on.
Further, class and cultural paradigms are not dichotomised into either/or choices that may best explain reality, for as Bahl argues, culture is always related to class and power. To illustrate, Dalits are not only a socio-cultural group but often represent an economic class as well. Class, culture, and gender as viewed as interrelated processes occurring within a complex social reality. The study makes use of Dalit writings in various fields, especially on their history and culture. Moreover, it goes beyond textual sources to focus on the actual voices and experiences of subaltern Dalit women.
The term empowerment, as conceptualized in various disciplines, has been used to explain different ideas and notions about individual and group power in the family and society. Empowerment is manifested as a redistribution of power, whether between nations, classes, castes, races, genders, or individuals, and taken to its limit, empowerment can mean equalizing or near-equalizing power. This implies, on the one hand, empowering those who do not have power and, on the other hand, dis-empowering those elevated on power in society.
The empowerment approach in development evolved out of educational theories of "popular education" and "liberation theology" developed in the 1970s in Latin America, which in turn, grew out of concepts articulated by Gramsci. A case in point, Freire's "conscientizacion" approach to help members of an oppressed community come together, articulate their needs and become organized, held that through popular education, oppressed peoples can become what Gramsci calls "organic intellectuals”, that is, intellectuals whose work is directly related to popular struggle.
Influenced by Freire, Illich and others, members of the clergy, social workers, and organizers, often paired the concientizacion approach with literacy classes to help bring a community together to articulate its needs and become organized. Yet, with the institutionalization of popular education in development practice, planners have reverted back to a top-down, "banking" pedagogical approach.
Although the concept of "women's empowerment" is of recent origin in feminist discourse, it too has raised several important implications for the education of poor, rural women the world over. Many Southern feminists and organizations took up the concepts of "conscientizacion" and popular participation and began formulating their own notions of empowerment for women. The goals of women's empowerment, most clearly articulated in 1985 by DAWN, are to enable poor women to gain access to and control over material and informational resources for survival needs and to satisfy more strategic gender needs. DAWN wrote of,
empowering ourselves through organizations... (with) flexibility of membership requirements... to poor working women whose time commitments and work burdens are already severe.
However, by placing importance on generating feelings of common female identity at the local, regional and national levels, gender empowerment is often critiqued for not addressing individual and group differences in class, caste, race, and location, at all levels which may serve to divide women. Correspondingly, by focusing too much on the individual at the local level gender empowerment is also critiqued for not addressing commonalties which rural women may face in regards to gender, class, caste and other issues at all levels.
In addition to formulations for empowering women at the group or individual level, there are at least three other strategies. One approach attempt to improve women's condition mainly by helping them meet family and community survival needs. Another centre on improving women's control over material resources and strengthening women's economic security. A third approach focus on awareness of the complex factors causing women's subordination, using a process of learning that leads to new consciousness, self-worth, societal and gender analysis, and access to skills and information. The MSK program Dalit women were involved with utilized a combination of these strategies, but there was a perceived focused on the later one.
As in popular education, gender empowerment is generally viewed as an externally induced process by outside agents. Batliwala writes:
empowerment must be externally induced, by forces working with an altered consciousness and an awareness that the existing social order is unjust and unnatural. They seek to change other women's consciousness; altering their self-image and their beliefs about their rights and capabilities; creating awareness of how gender discrimination, like other socioeconomic and political forces, is one of the forces acting on them; challenging the sense of inferiority that has been imprinted on them since birth; and recognizing the true value of their labor and contributions to the family, society, and economy.
These external agents of change may take many forms such as outside activists, or an adult literacy primer. Nonformal education and empowerment have been linked to denote political awareness, or social, economic, environmental and gender consciousness.
There are several unquestioned assumptions in many theoretical formulations on empowering the oppressed. One such assumption is that those with unequal power in society will voluntary share resources and become more democratic in decision-making. Another problem is the whole question of who gets diagnosed as "dis-empowered" by whom, and who gets to label themselves as empowered, and, consequently, secure the right to set the boundaries of these terms and determine what is needed in order to improve the lives of individuals and groups? This question is especially relevant in India’s caste Hindu dominated society.
In their appropriation of popular education concepts to organize against gender-based discrimination and oppression, many feminists have targeted their efforts on gender and class empowerment, which unfortunately means ignoring issues of race, caste, religious and ethnic oppression which many poor, women of color also face. In the case of Dalit and other minority women, the issues of their minority status is an integral part of their self-image, therefore, the `awareness' approach must include cultural empowerment as part of any program aimed at improving their self-image.
Like gender empowerment, cultural empowerment is similarly being conceptualized by several groups using the cultural critiques of power inherent in Gramscian thought and liberation theology, along with the colonial critiques of class and race which emerged in the dependency school of the 1960s. Nevertheless, the multicultural education movement in the USA, and other culture and class based movements, such as the Black Panthers in the USA and the Dalit Panthers in India, have largely ignore issues of gender. Consequently, there are few writings that take class, gender and cultural empowerment into account.
Empowerment in this study is broadly defined as a consequence of female's participation in planned or unplanned activities, which may lead them to having increased skills, greater self-efficacy, new alternatives for individual and group action, new access to resources, and a different sense of who they are. It must be stated that empowerment is not an outcome that the women who participated in the study actually choose to pursue in a true Freirean sense, that is, to become "conscious" or empowered. Empowerment is both a process and the result of that process. And although, as an outcome, empowerment cannot be measured directly, empowerment is nevertheless real in the altered ways women acted on their worlds and in the ways they think about themselves. A case in point, the Dalit women involved with MSK often described their feelings of being empowered as "change”, "improvement”, and "confidence”.
One of the main claims being made is that being engaged in the MSK program was more important for empowerment of Dalit women than the actual education they received. For example, the chance to interact and share experiences with other Dalit women served as opportunities for them to create friendships and forms of mutual support as well as encourage women to think differently about what they could do with their lives.
Rather than viewing people as passive recipients of structural, ideological and group forces, this study conceives of people as active agents who are constantly resisting or using dominant forces to better themselves. Poor, rural Dalit women's agency and conscious actions to improve their lives induce forms of self and group empowerment. As Kothari suggests, a process of cultural and economic empowerment is occurring among Dalits. This experience forms a major part of rural Dalit women's self-concept as well as collective identity. The informal process of cultural empowerment operates in relation to other, more formalized forms of empowerment programs, like MSK.
Issues of development, empowerment, and resistance are linked in this study by exploring the contradictory effects of the mobilization of rural Dalit women and the forms of empowerment and resistance they develop in response to the Mahila Samakhya development program. A major assumption of the study is that gender, class and caste ideologies, which limit Dalit women's education and employment options, are constantly being contested as part of individual and collective agency, resistance, and empowerment.
In this regard, resistance as a concept and activity is going on all the time. Resistance is related to empowerment, in that resistance may serve as a catalyst for empowerment. Submissiveness to authority and defiance are characteristic behavior of the subaltern. It is these two elements together which constitute the subaltern mentality. In this sense, voices of the subaltern is taken to mean rural Dalit women’s cooperation and resistance to institutions of authority, including patriarchy, Brahmanic ideology and practice, and the welfare state represented by the MSK program, at the household, village and district levels. The process of their subordination or domination is never complete, and their struggle and resistance mark it.
This first chapter provides a framework for understanding this study by outlining the main issues and themes explored with a view to providing the reader with a sense of the nature and scope of the study, and the social context in which Dalit women live. Even though this chapter discusses class, caste, gender, and empowerment as separate issues, in reality these issues are interconnected in the lives of rural respondents.