Everything from knowledge to housing to career is determined by one’s social location. And so are relationships. We are familiar with the stats from 2014 on OKcupid, which showed that black women were the least desirable group (Asian men were rated lowest by single women). Closer home, there is no survey to justify a similar situation for Dalit women, for the simple reason that no one has even asked this question yet.
My dating experiences began when I was in college. I met my first romantic partner around the same time I was beginning to identify as a feminist. This was also when I was coming to terms with my Dalit identity, something I was sure would never matter. I believed love conquered everything. I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
Not only can caste play a role in determining the success of one’s romantic pursuit, it can also shape one’s competence, desirability, and confidence. And love, contrary to what we have been taught, may not be the most sacred of all feelings. Our attraction for another could be a function of our social locations, defined by caste, class, race, and religion. Our decision in choosing a companion could very much be dependent on how reluctant we are in challenging status quos. Like how my then partner chose to break up with me because his parents couldn’t accept the fact that I was Dalit. Or how, many years later, another very pointedly told me that his family might be able to accept me if I didn’t behave like a Dalit.
Dating in India Today
Most of my women friends I grew up with had arranged marriages, and very few dated to find their partners. We (my family) have also been asked to try that. We had less access to social networks, and so put up profiles on both elite and not-so-elite web portals, specifying everything but our caste. And offers came from different types of families and men, both from India and overseas, but with one question in common: Where are you originally from? Which of course meant, what is your caste.
In 2014, the first direct estimate of inter-caste marriage in India said that only 5% of Indians married a person from a different caste. But if India is embracing modernity and a new breed of Indo-Anglians are emerging, then is it possible that the remaining 95% did not just use the arranged marriage method to find intra-caste partners? Is it possible that Indians continue to look for intra-caste prospects via modern dating methods and apps as well?
Over the past few years, there has been a slew of articles on how apps like Tinder are revolutionising the matrimonial space in India, where matches are most often made on the basis of caste. And it is true that these apps do not ask for one’s caste (like matrimonial websites do), and one does not usually come across profiles that specify a caste preference. But does this ensure that a legal or a social inter-caste union will take place? Could it be true that these apps are only casting a wider net to have access to people from different castes? Is it possible that people continue to base their interest for another on caste markers**? And in the event that there is interest between an inter-caste couple, is it a given that they would follow it through to a legal or a social union?
There is also a steady discourse dedicated to how Indian women are gaining sexual agency, in that they are no longer hesitant when it comes to casual sex, being with married men, or having an open relationship. Hook ups and casual dating via an app or otherwise, are part of a sex positive culture for those who are otherwise inhibited from experiencing unbridled sexual pleasure, inside or outside of a relationship.
Seeking Love when Dalit and Woman
It is in this context that a Dalit woman (most often cis-het, urban and educated) considers dating as a possible route to finding a partner. While I don’t hold knowledge of every Dalit woman’s experience, I can safely say (based on mine and that of my friends/acquaintances/others) that it is nowhere close to a rosy picture characterised by the absence of caste or the prominence of female sexual agency. Instead, we are stereotyped in more ways than one;
1. As victims: Dalit women are primarily viewed as victims and survivorsof various kinds of violence. Reification of the Dalit identity has led to the boxing of our existence whose dimensions are solely defined by the savarna (dominant caste) gaze. Our self-assertions of identity are commodified to create a warped limiting of our lives, creating an image that is voiceless in the minds of our potential suitors. We are not seen as being capable of desire, love or happiness; we don’t exist as individuals outside of violence.
Not only does this make us seem unattractive, in the context of dating where confidence is generally regarded as an attractive trait, it also has implications in an actual relationship. Because it is assumed that we don’t have the power to protect ourselves, we are grossly undervalued. Intimate violence may follow, the nature of which could be different from what savarna women undergo. The extent of abuse can also be aggravated by a real (or a perceived) lack of monetary and social support.
While traditional discourses, most often authored by non-Dalit voices, have concluded that we face intimate violence only in the hands of Dalit men (which in turn has led to the criminalising of Dalit men and boys), our lived realities today speak of another truth. Non-Dalit male partners are far more likely to inflict violence on us – both physically and sexually, because they face far less consequences when reported, which is especially true if the survivor happens to be a Dalit woman.
2. As unfeminine: We are also perceived relative to our non-Dalit counterparts: the lighter-skinned, savarna woman that is pure, quiet, and delicate versus the dark-skinned Dalit woman that’s polluting, loud, and tough. And pop culture through the ages has helped foster this dichotomy. By casting only light-skinned, savarna women as love interests of the male protagonist, it has implied that the one deserving of a happily ever-after will need to have a certain set of physical attributes and come from a certain social location. Even in the case of Dalit male protagonists, the one who catches his eye or steals his heart is never a Dalit woman (Sairat, Thalapathy, Kadhal), who when represented, is often depicted as loud-mouthed, angry, and verbally abusive.
In the real world, this translates into an Angry Dalit Woman stereotype that lacks femininity and can therefore not evoke the feeling of romantic love in a heteronormative/sexual setting. Particularly in the case of politicised Dalit women active in the digital space, this stereotype is repeatedly used against us in an effort to invalidate our political articulations. The mere voicing of our opinions and the vocalising of our lived experience invites a barrage of accusations from both Dalits and non-Dalits.
Now if we do succeed in finding a cis-het romantic partner, we are then expected to maintain a certain behaviour to sustain the relationship. This includes not being ‘too into this Dalit thing’, subscribing to the ideals of a traditional wife/girlfriend, finding ways to integrate ourselves into the partner’s social circle and leaving our ‘identity politics’ atthe door. This is not an exhaustive list – it may very well differ for every relationship. The point though is that in a cis-het relationship, the price paid by the Dalit woman (stereotyped as angry and unfeminine) towards its success is far higher than the savarna woman. The latter can retain her political self and still be perceived as feminine, while the former will have to keep proving her femininity by choosing to not voice her political opinions, which are deemed as irrational or too-much regardless of their truth. Voicing these opinions, either publicly or privately, means the potential end to a relationship.
3. As promiscuous: The dichotomy of the Dalit vs. savarna woman shapes how the former is perceived and treated sexually as well. As Rowena points out here, the upper caste woman’s body is regarded as sacred, protected by the men in her family, based on notions of chastity, virginity and docile femininity. But the Dalit woman’s body has traditionally been regarded as a site of sexual pleasure and entertainment without the need for legitimacy.
Today’s urban Dalit woman is not spared of this stereotyping. What the sexually liberated savarna woman does is accepted as a credible political response, but when done by the Dalit woman it is perceived as shameful. Casual sex, being with married men and having open relationships, which are touted as sexually liberating and indicative of a sex positive culture does not hold the same meaning for Dalit women. Particularly in the case of men having savarna women as partners, their interest for Dalit women outside of the legitimate relationship is simply an urban/modern version of upper caste men sexually exploiting disadvantaged Dalit women that work in their fields/houses. And in most cases, the savarna partner is not threatened by this arrangement; she continues to be the legitimate entity in the equation while the Dalit woman is relegated the task of satisfying her man’s unconventional sexual desires.
Where do we go from here?
The stereotyping that Dalit women face when navigating the modern dating space is likely to be far more sinister in reality than what I have described above. And the more aware we become of the dynamics, the tougher it gets for us to trust – a key ingredient needed in sustaining a loving relationship. We are constantly under pressure to project an acceptable version that should be sexy but not loose, docile but not weak, confident but not strong, lest that we be stereotyped, only to be further exploited or victimised or rejected. Lack of social capital or support, in the form of friends or family, also makes it difficult when dealing with break ups, etc.
This subject requires more in-depth articulation in terms of what we can do as individuals, allies, families, and communities; but I believe it is important to consider doing the following as a start:
1. As communities, it is important to love and cherish Dalit women for who we are and what we are becoming. Constantly prioritising the fragility of savarna women or choosing to perceive them as the only ones worthy of romantic love/legitimacy are typical ways in which Dalit Women are undervalued in private spaces. This must stop.
2. Have a serious discourse on the politics of desirability. : Who we choose to have sex with, who we are friends with benefits with, who we get into committed, exclusive relationships with, are political choices. This cannot be downplayed as personal preference.
3. Actively challenge the dominance of the savarna and the cis-het male gaze, which continues to propagate the Madonna-Whore dichotomy, desires only certain types of bodies, and pigeonholes Dalit women.
4. Rethink the discourse around polyamory, open relationships and casual sex in the context of modern heterosexual relationships. Although these are by definition sex positive, and may work as liberal alternatives for mainstream feminists that come from privileged social locations, it could potentially be exploitative for Dalit women.
We are a long way off from creating a world that values Dalit women in both public and private spaces. Modernity hasn’t ensured a good world for everyone. Unless we are willing to seriously question our privileges across every space, our role in holding up negative stereotypes of Dalit women, and our personal choices in love and sex, what we do in the name of anti-caste politics is merely performative. And those of us who don’t necessarily identify as progressive, we are simply old wine in a new bottle. Apps don’t kill caste; we do.
This article originally appeared on GenderIT’s website.