This article was written by a group of South Asian feminist activists and students coming from a position of caste privilege and allyship.
On April 29, the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission is holding a public forum on caste discrimination that could lead to Santa Clara County becoming the first jurisdiction in the United States to make caste a legally protected category. As a group of women who span South Asian nationalities and religious identities but do not face the discrimination that comes with caste-based oppression, we write now especially to our caste-privileged South Asian community members. This historic moment cannot be one in which we as a community remain silent and complacent; rather, we must take leadership from Dalit and Bahujan activists in securing legal protections for so many who have been marginalized for generations. We must see this moment for what it is: a turning point in civil rights history, for labor protections, and as part of our understanding of South Asian diasporic feminism.
The language we use tells us who we see, and don’t see – which experiences are rendered visible and which experiences are erased. Liberal feminism in the South Asian diaspora might pride itself on adopting the intersectional prisms defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (race, class, and gender), but in caste-privileged brown feminists’ active erasure of caste and labor, we see a feminism that reinforces Brahminical patriarchy.
That is why this moment in time is historic, both as a time to act and, once we have acted, to reflect. If one’s feminism is not anti-caste and labor-informed, who does it benefit?
Savarna feminism is a feminism of scarcity – seen clearly in the refusal of diaspora influencer feminists (often Savarna Hindus) to engage in more nuanced conversations when violence is enacted by their caste-privileged communities against Dalit folks. As Thenmozhi Soundarajan and Sharmin Hossain write in Wear Your Voice, “Brown girl solidarity has allowed for Indian upper caste networks of power to go unchecked, reifying Brahmin domination of the South Asian diaspora.” Dalit feminists have organized along the lines of caste, gender, and labor for generations, but the caste-privileged feminist echo chamber has consistently invisibilized this abundance of organizing and agitation led by Dalit feminists.
Caste-privileged feminists have a long history of separating themselves from the Dalit feminist movement, often placing themselves in direct opposition. As seen in the fight against India’s Section 377, Dalit voices have agitated for an intersectional, caste-informed perspective in the ongoing work toward LGBTQ+ protections. And over and over, Savarna women “vehemently rejected” protections for Dalit communities, as in the 1990 movements for reservations to address institutionalized caste discrimination.
Dalit and Bahujan women have been consistently unprotected by national and state governments. In South Asia and in the diaspora, it is not news that violence against Dalit women goes unpunished: Over 20 years ago, a Human Rights Watch report noted, “In all cases of attacks on [Dalit] women documented in this report, the accused state and private actors escaped punishment; in most cases, attacks were neither investigated nor prosecuted.” Shortly after that report was published, a caste-privileged landlord in Berkeley, California was convicted for trafficking and assaulting Dalit women and girls. Today, having been released after only 8 years, this landlord retains hold of his real estate empire across the city.
With Dalit and Bahujan communities subject to Savarna violence over and again, supporting a move to create protections against caste discrimination in one county in California feels very much like the least we can do.
Knowing this history of caste-privileged feminism, and our need as non-Dalit South Asian feminists to prioritize the voices of the Dalit feminist movement, the Santa Clara hearing’s significance cannot be overstated. Santa Clara County may be the first U.S. jurisdiction to consider caste as a protected legal category, but given the hard work of Dalit feminists, it very likely will not be the last. As Muslim, Christian, and Hindu feminists with connections to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India, we believe we must lend our voices to the caste protections battle. The potential impacts for workers, women, queer communities, and oppressed-caste folks of all nationalities, immigration statuses, and faith traditions are too significant – we cannot slip into a complacent Savarna feminism this time.
Header image credit by Thenmozhi Soundarajan/Equality Labs