If the most oppressed of the Dalit sub-castes have it bad, the women amongst them have it infinitely worse
“Chakkiliyar na chakkara madhiri” – Arunthathiyar women are like sugar (sweet and easy to find).
This has been the overwhelming refrain of men, ‘upper’ caste and ‘lower’, about women in the community.
Arunthathiyars, the most oppressed of the Dalit sub-castes in Tamil Nadu, predominantly live in the western belt of the state and work as cobblers, manual scavengers, agricultural labourers and construction workers.
In the past, Arunthathiyar women were not allowed to cover their bosoms or wear blouses with their sarees. To date, they cannot wear thalis (mangalsutras). For men, they are sex objects and labouring bodies, with no lives of their own.
For the women, it is hard to fight the patriarchy of ‘upper’ caste men. It is even harder to fight the patriarchy of men of their own caste.
From behind the rows of sewing machines, Alamelu Kumari appears. The 40-year-old has had a difficult life. From being shunned by her family for choosing not to marry at 14 and alienated by her neighbours for making friends with men in the village of Selavadai, she has survived it all. Alamelu started her own self help group, which later grew into a non-profit called the Rural Women’s Development Trust. Disapproval came from not just family and neighbours – the entire town was against her. “I am still alive and running this non-profit. I don’t care what others think. My goal is clear,” she says. Two of her colleagues – Revathi and Kasturi – seat themselves next to her.
In the office of the nonprofit Alamelu Kumar runs, a row of sewing machines stand.
For 22-year-old Revathi, it is a curse, she says, to be born into her caste. Revathi has been working since she was 8 years old. As a bonded labourer living in a Gounder (dominant caste belonging to OBC category) household, she says her own boss has treated her better than the men in her community.
She recalls an instance. “The man you call Anna (brother) will take your kindness and respect as an invitation to have sex with you. I had an Arunthathiyar friend and I used to go to her house, and she used to come to mine. This husband of her’s felt that it was a chance to get closer to me. One night he entered my house drunk while I was asleep with my child. He tried to rape me. While I ran out of the house, he saw me again, and apologised and told me not to tell anyone. I didn’t listen to him and filed a case against him,” she says. For Revathi, this was a huge step, defying her community’s subservient attitude to pursue an FIR. The case is still pending.
To her surprise, Revathi received support from her husband. “It was like I had witnessed two sides of a man, but I didn’t know which one to have faith in. You can never tell how a man will behave,” she says.
Looking on, Revathi’s friend Kasturi takes the seat next. She has had a far tougher life. She has been threatened with violence regularly, and lived every day in fear of being assaulted and raped.
Kasturi, a woman who has fought her husband’s unending suspicion and harassment as a bonded labourer
“I have never lived a day without suspicion from my drunk husband. He would check my saree for semen while I was asleep. He has from day one assumed that I sleep with a lot of men and that I am a loose woman,” she says.
Gounder men have, Revathi says, been kinder to some of the women working for them. “Men who hail from our community are much worse than them sometimes. They give in to drinking, and we face more sexual harassment from them than from Gounder men,” she says. But the dynamics change when women, whose husbands drink away all the money, have to take loans from their bosses. “It then changes,” says Alamelu, egging Kasturi and Revathi to open up.
After a few hours, Janaki Kumari arrives. She is a 75-year-old woman who has seen it all. Her late husband was an abusive drunk, and she has borne the brunt of both Arunthathiyar and Gounder men. “When I was younger and married at 13, I was sent to work and abused by Gounder women themselves. You would think that women would be more understanding but caste is above gender. Today I am tired. I can’t fight anymore. Let my future generations make me proud,” she says, with a weary smile.
Naickerthottam is a village dominated by the intermediate Naicker caste, in a reserve forest area 50 kms from Salem town. A stone’s throw away from their homes is the Arunthathiyar colony. “They (Naickers) make up probably 70 percent?” says Kalaivendhan, Alamelu’s colleague.
For over 300 years, the Arunthathiyars perform a custom that they say is in their blood. Every time a Naicker woman is menstruating, she is taken to a hut in the forest and made to live there for 10-15 days so as to not “pollute” the village. An Arunthathiyar woman or a female child is responsible for guarding her day and night and protecting her from wild animals. If a wild animal appears, it is the responsibility of the Arunthathiyar woman to fight it off.
To date, this custom is practiced.
An Arunthathiyar woman looks on while other women struggle with the single loom in the village
In the village, the Arunthathiyar women shy away from talking about it. The moment we ask a woman, the rest run into their homes, denying that the custom ever existed. But 23-year-old Kavitha stays back. “It exists, even now. But I can’t tell you more. Everyone will hate me,” she says, sprinting back to her home.
After knocking on a dozen doors, 32-year-old Malar greets us with a smile. “I was 10 years old when I was forced by my family to guard a 14-year-old Naicker girl. I was scared. What if I get eaten up by a wild animal? Why are they asking me to do this?” she recalls, her voice breaking. But Malar had to come to terms with it, and that is when she was most aware of her caste identity. “I realised slowly, that no one cares if I die, and my parents were too scared to rebel. I am after all an ‘untouchable’ girl. Instead of going to school, I had to do this,” she says.
Her 7-year-old tugs at her saree, asking her to make dinner. Malar is relieved that her daughter cannot understand, but is also worried that she will have to explain this to her in a few years.
Various non-profits and NGOs including Alamelu’s are campaigning to abolish this custom and work for the empowerment of Arunthathiyar women and girls. But there is a catch.
Malar and many other women make roughly Rs 200 a week for this job in the woods. “I have money to call my own, and I never let my husband touch it. If they try to stop this, we will lose our economic independence and have to depend on other people,” she says in a booming voice. “What do these NGOs and activists know? This will never end, and we don’t want it to end,” she says.
For Arunthathiyar women, every day is a fight. Every day, they regret being born, and every day they wait on some hope that their husbands and Gounder men will change. But as Alamelu says, “We are our own enemies, because we have internalised caste prejudice enough to hate ourselves. Only if we stop hating ourselves for being Arunthathiyar women can we fight to uplift ourselves.”
Arunthathiyar women at the Rural Development Trust hold up their ID cards to the camera and smile
As the evening sun sets in, Alamelu wraps up her meeting with women labourers who are part of the non-profit. While they hold up their ID cards for the camera, Alamelu gives them a thumbs-up. Revathi smiles and whispers, “The difference between us and the other castes, so I think, is that if one Arunthathiyar woman stands up against the system, just one – we will join her. We will not hesitate anymore. We are no longer scared.”