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Desirability and Caste

When the pressure started to mount on Surekha, from all corners, to get married, she thought of reconsidering Kishore’s proposal which was made a year or two before. She had not accepted the proposal at the time as she was in her early twenties and she felt she was too young to be getting married. But as she entered her mid-twenties, everyone started asking her to get married. Many younger comrades from the Sanghatan (organisation) she was associated with, had found their partners and were waiting for Surekha to get married. As they were like younger sisters to her, Surekha felt it was not fair for her to hold up their marriages. Therefore she decided to give Kishore’s proposal a chance. 

 When Surekha decided to first try and understand Kishore better, before entering into discussions of marriage, she surprised many in her Sangathan as both Surekha and Kishore were working together for many years in the same Sangathan. Despite knowing Kishore, Surekha decided to take some time to date Kishore in order to get to know him better. She wanted to go to parks and cinemas like it was done in the films, and wanted to make sure that both were like-minded. Surekha had always wanted to choose her own partner without giving in to the traditional way of finding a match and hence had thought well about what kind of a partner she wanted. She therefore freely discussed her ideas of marriage, love, and companionship. She clearly conveyed to Kishore that she did not wish to have children. She explained that she was really tired of seeing and tending to her elder sisters who used to come to their maternal house to deliver their babies, and felt it was a colossal responsibility which she did not want in her life but would rather commit herself fulltime to her activism. Kishore being a witness to Surekha’s commitment towards social activism for the past years had liked her for it. He happily obliged to her wishes. Surekha even told Kishore that she would want them to declare this decision about not having children to their respective families, before the marriage if they decided to be together, as she would not want their families to pester them about this after their marriage. 

After a lot of deliberation, Surekha felt that she connected well with Kishore as their thoughts matched. She felt he would be the right choice for her. But to be completely sure, she still wanted to see how Kishore would convince his family about marrying a girl from a different caste. 

Anticipating much opposition from Kishore’s family, Surekha was looking forward to chaotic conflict regarding their transgressive inter-caste relationship that she saw as an act of assertion.  She felt that in order to truly deserve her, Kishore would need to put up a fight in order to marry her. But to her disappointment when Kishore and Surekha along with the Sanghatan members, went to his house to discuss their marriage, Kishore’s widowed mother hesitantly agreed to Kishore’s decision without much trouble. Though his family members agreed to the marriage, their facial expressions blatantly showed the question uppermost in their minds, “What does our upper-caste boy desire in Surekha, a Dalit girl, that he wants to be married to her while there are so many beautiful women in our own community?” Surekha sensed the question which was staring at her. She could not ignore it but had to face it. She, for the first time, even though only for a moment, wondered what was desirable in her Dalit body.

Not only Surekha but many Dalit women are forced by the caste society to wonder whether their Dalit bodies are desirable enough to be loved, to be caressed, to become a companion, a wife and a family. Most Dalit women are rejected by the caste society as undesirable bodies and are always placed in a dichotomy with their upper-caste counterparts. The light-skinned, savarna women who are considered pure, quiet, delicate, beautiful, and feminine are placed in contrast to Dalit women who are perceived as tough, loud, polluted, and unfeminine, thus projecting them as undesirable bodies. To further the undesirability of Dalit bodies, the caste culture stigmatises Dalit women’s sexuality as ‘impure’, ‘immoral’, ‘improper’ or ‘promiscuous’, and often uses this as a justification for the sexual exploitation of Dalit women by men who are placed higher to them in the caste hierarchy. This often leads to the categorization of Dalit women as either ‘sexual objects’ or ‘sexual victims’. Dalit women are portrayed only in such images that continue to be propagated in popular culture even today, and this has limited the possibilities of the emergence of different subjectivities of Dalit women. The caste culture has succeeded in constructing the notions of the undesirability of Dalit women’s bodies through these controlling images of Dalit women. These notions are so deeply rooted in society that even when an upper-caste man marries a Dalit woman out of love, it is not seen as a ‘romantic’ but as a ‘merely sexual’ relationship.  

Surekha witnessed these notions when she conveyed to her parents her decision to marry Kishore.  Her working-class parents were very worried but agreed with Surekha’s decision as she managed to convince them. But when Surekha told her parents that Kishore and she would not be tying a ritual knot, as they didn’t agree with that patriarchal practice, but instead would only exchange garlands as a ritual of marriage, her parents were devastated.  Despite knowing Kishore for many years, Surekha’s parents feared that not tying a knot would provide an excuse for Kishore to leave Surekha eventually. They feared that Surekha was not in the right mind to make this decision because it was an untold knowledge for them that marrying a Dalit woman would mean to take her as a ‘keep’, because such marriages in general are not socially validated. They were very anxious that their daughter would never get the legal position of being a wife in caste society. Though Surekha understood the concerns of her parents she was sure of her choice. Therefore she tried to convince her parents that there were other possibilities other than the one they knew of, but felt helpless as she could not pinpoint any examples of alternative realities existing around her. She thought hard about whether she knew some Dalit women who married out of their caste but she only found examples of a few celebrated inter-caste marriages of Dalit male activists. She wondered whether there were no Dalit women who entered an inter-caste marriage or whether it was not given enough importance to be popularised. 

Not only Surekha but many Dalit women who married out of caste would wonder why their marriages never entered the discourse on inter-caste relationships/marriages, why recent films portraying Dalit love only focus on Dalit men’s love and not theirs, and why their transgressive love has always been invisible to society. Many Dalit women would wonder whether their love, desire, and need for a community with shared experience, matter; whether giving hope to other Dalit women to transgress the intersecting structural boundaries to date, desire, love and to build intimacies matter, and whether their imagination of new forms of families and society matter.

Surekha felt it mattered. She felt it was both a personal and social commitment to create such alternative realities. Therefore, she decided that even if she did not convince her family, she would rebel and would marry Kishore, the way they both wanted, to build their own form of family.

 

Cover Image: Pixabay

Article written by:

Disha K R is a Research Scholar interested in the Intersectionality of caste and gender. She is currently working on Inter-caste families and has previously worked on Dalit women’s inter-caste marriages for her M. Phil. from Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

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