The twin burdens of caste & gender that Indian women continue to bear after Independence

No one is briefed about caste. Art and Literature are privileges denied to the vast majority. Discrimination is endemic in villages and women bear the brunt, says filmmaker Leena Manimekalai

The twin burdens of caste & gender that Indian women continue to bear after Independence
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Leena Manimekalai

I was not aware of caste till I was 15 years old. It was when I had to submit a caste certificate in Class X that I became conscious of it. It literally opened a can of worms.

My father, a teacher and the first graduate in the family, briefed me but suddenly I was flooded with questions for myself, my folks, the system. I started questioning everything.

How living in Chennai was different from our village Maharajapuram where we went during summer holidays. Why was a certain group of people treated differently? Why couldn’t everyone own land? Why were certain workers called by their names? Why was Karuppiah not referred to as Chitappa (uncle) or Anna (brother)?

No one briefs you about caste. Why aren’t we taught about it? We never learn about our own society and the societal mix. Like, why are there these invisible walls between people? Why are things bifurcated geographically? Why is there no water, education and roads available to some?

Upper castes have this romantic notion of the village but for the oppressed it is an abode of discrimination. It’s a part of their lives that they don’t even want to talk about. We casually ask people if they have read a certain book. For someone who has been rolling bidis at Rs 200 a week, access to books and school is next to impossible. To even know that arts and literature exist is a privilege. We keep forgetting that it is not for all.

The notion of caste, class, gender is shaped by the majoritarian religion. It’s not part of our world; we have to navigate our place in it.

People don’t stand up to give respect to a Dalit judge. What they see is reservation; what they don’t want to look at is what they have done to the community for over 3000 years. They are continuing with it, throwing casteist slurs at women’s Olympics hockey team member Vandana Katariya.

It was while researching on my second film, Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale, that I read a lot about Puthirai Vannaar and met members of the community that the film is set in. [Puthirai Vannaar, is a Dalit caste group whose enforced job is to wash clothes of other Dalits, the dead and the menstruating women. Their sight is considered polluting by the supposed upper castes]. Even among them, some are more equal than others, depending on which Dalit caste group they wash clothes for.


We talk about annihilation of caste. I wonder how is it possible. Even the word “deep” is not enough to describe the extent of oppression. Periyar said that there can be no revolution without a cultural revolution. We have to awake culturally, socially, politically.

Germany has monuments of historical wrongs. They take you on a tour of concentration camps. There are courses on Nazism. It is all done to not repeat the wrongs of the past. We, however, are taught about the golden rule of Ashoka. History can’t be about a celebration of the past but about not repeating mistakes. We have to take charge of the legacy.

We are made to believe in an equal world but there is a difference between having opportunity and having equal opportunity. In this context, merit is a profit made by the privileged in our society that is so deeply divided by class, caste, religion and gender. It is as simple as that.

The word ‘merit’, according to Oxford dictionary means, the ‘quality’ of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward. When this ‘quality’ is normally measured through examinations in countries like India, when there is no level playing field and when higher education is not a fundamental right of a citizen but a desire of an individual, then this ‘neutral’ definition makes no sense. Merit, as a word, has no meaning. To get a better rank in an examination and thus be identified as meritorious, one needs many resources, especially economic. One needs better access to primary education and training, freedom from other work and responsibilities.

One needs a strong social and cultural network and contacts. One needs esteem, confidence and guidance and hard work. Now the larger and everlasting question is if our society is equal in terms of distributing these resources?

Gender is a huge operator in discrimination. It’s a monstrous tool of oppression. Within caste, gender becomes doubly discriminatory.

A Dalit man is better off than a backward community woman like me. I tweeted the other day that when Venice Film Festival chose Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Chola, it rejected my Maadathy; when National Award committee chose Vetri Maaran’s Asuran, it rejected Maadathy. When Amazon Prime Video chose to pay Rs 30+ crore to Pa. Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai, it rejected Maadathy.

When human worth is decided by caste and gender, especially when a female born in oppressed caste is doubly discriminated, I am historically burdened to challenge the existing reservation system and demand gender-based quota as well.

(Leena Manimekalai is an independent filmmaker and poet)

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