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The history of sexual exploitation of Dalit women
“We are but the jungle — everybody pisses in the jungle.” These words from a middle-aged sister from the Far West still jab at me like wasp stings and leave me reeling. She says in the language of her experience and sensibilities, “My life is just like that riverbank — desolate, dry.”
Her house is by the riverbank. Hot air wafting in makes me more despondent. There is a glaring sun outside. The wind whistles in through gaps in the wall-planks. A little girl swings her younger sister in a jute-sack cradle. A hen picks at cooked grains of rice.
A cot, stringed with sisal-bark ropes, with chicken shit all around. By the door, a Juthyan (washing area) spilling with plates and pots, dry but unwashed. Over the hearth hang soot-bearded strips of meat. As if waiting for an opportunity to steal the meat, a cat walks in and out unchallenged.
I read into her eyes and her life spinning like a wheel and talk to myself, I think about the stories of the vaginas of the women of the Far West of Nepal. I begin to wonder if the American playwright Eve Ensler had met with untouchable women while writing the Vagina Monologues. What are the stories of the vaginas of untouchable women, not yet included among the stories of the vaginas of women of other countries?
She is small in stature, with even, straight teeth. A hooped nose ring. Pink lipstick. Short, bright salwar-kurta, with the salwar climbing above her ankles. Payal brand flip-flops, stretched with use. And dull eyes. Her gaze reminds me of the Indian litterateur Omprakash Valmik’s words, “The lives of Dalits are like the open eyes of a dead fish.”
“The lives of Dalits are like the open eyes of a dead fish.”
I study her flitting, alert eyes that hold the story of a life from which all color has faded. She recalls a life of innumerable struggles and tells her story, “Night falls when I close my eyes. I like neither the day nor the night. I’ve forgotten if I was ever fond of anything.”
Every word she speaks reminds me of my brother-in-law cutting new cloth. Her tongue and my brother-in-law’s scissors are similar—very sharp!
“I am unwed, and she is my daughter.”
She smiles occasionally when she thinks about her life. Or, she appears as if she is smiling, no matter how desolate her heart is. She says in a voice made hoarse by days and nights of shouting in protest — “I get very exhausted, sister; I can’t muster the heart for the work anymore. Some are extremely cruel. They beat me during intercourse. Force me to lick their privates. Pay me too little. But some of them give me money for the children, to buy something nice for them to eat.”
As she talks, she can neither open herself up frankly nor stop herself from speaking. Sometimes her voice seems to disappear, become buried. She appears fatigued. Perhaps she searches for words society deems proper, civilized. She awakens emotions baked in the furnace of her memories and asks, “My spit from down there is acceptable, spit from my mouth is acceptable, but why isn’t food and water from my hands acceptable?
“My spit from down there is acceptable, spit from my mouth is acceptable, but why isn’t food and water from my hands acceptable?”
Her question shocks as if I have grabbed a live wire. Be it the story of a woman from the Far West, or of my Jethi Aama from the Mid West, the experiences are varied and yet the same.
She looks at the daughter sitting by her side and says, ‘Sister—I am unwed. This is my daughter. How cruel her father was—he neither showed me the place of his folks, nor did he take me to the house where he lived. The fates of some people never change. What it was yesterday, it remains today, and will remain the same tomorrow.’
How can the future also be the past?
Her futures squat by her side, on the floor. She points to young women of ‘wheatish-complexion’ and says, “Their lives are just like ours.” She says this because she sees her history repeat in the lives of those who are her future.
A vehicle’s horn screeches on the highway and all eyes turn towards the sound. A group of women laughs as they walk along the road. “If only we weren’t called names when we laughed full-heartedly like they do,” she roars with laughter. My smile vanishes.
She adds, “When the Ranas, the princelings and kinglets made us their kept-women and made us sing and dance, we had to laugh with them. That laughter later turned to poison. How strange! Even our laughter is controlled by others.”
"...Even our laughter is controlled by others.”
Journeying through the Far West of Nepal was important to understand the stories of the genitals of ‘untouchable’ women of Nepal, and indeed, to understand Nepali society itself. The stories of the genitals of the women of Nepal and India are similar.
The stories of the Satnam (Chamar) women of India are much like the stories of our sisters and mothers who have been mistreated as patarni and untouchables in our society. During an exchange of experiences between the political scientist Anupama Roy and a Satnami (Chamar) woman, the Satnami woman tells Roy, “Upper-caste men don’t touch us. They never eat with us. But they are always prepared for adultery. Our women are never untouchables while doing that. But even when they lick the private parts of Satnami women, they don’t lose their purity.”
After hearing the Satnami Chamar woman’s words, a question arises—While the mouth that licks the ‘impure’ private parts remains pure, how does the body of a Dalit woman become impure?
The history of oppression of women in the name of caste, religion, and color isn’t a short one. And strands of it aren’t confined to Nepal and India alone. African American feminist thinker bell hooks says, “Though Sex appears to be culturally diverse, people of color are strategically located, always and only in a subordinate position. Our images and cultures appear in a context that mirrors racist hierarchies. We are always present to serve white desire.”
The pages of history tell us of how African American women were used as factories for the uninterrupted production of children. There is a similarity between discrimination based on color and that based on caste. The oppression is even more intense for women; apart from racism and casteism, they must also experience the burden of forced sexual labor.
The oppression is even more intense for women; apart from racism and casteism, they must also experience the burden of forced sexual-labor.
The sexual labor and sexual violence experienced by women of the so-called ‘low caste’ is unimaginable. There exists a belief that the chastity of a Dalit woman is of no consequence and that the personhood of Dalit women is of no worth to Brahmin and Kshatriya men. The so-called ‘high caste’ do not consider sexual attacks against Dalit women as crimes against an individual. Criminology expert Yuvaraj Sangroula writes that even institutions responsible for implementing the law do not show concern for instances of sexual violence against Dalit women.
Such apathy isn’t limited to those who make the body of the woman from the Far West into a jungle. The main question is–why has it always been accepted that the bodies of common Dalit women like her are unchallenged domains of people of a caste with special privileges?
Rulers who enjoyed the bodies of Deuchelis
The history of the exploitation and legal control of Dalit women’s bodies even more deplorable. The ‘Letter from Shree 3 Jung, regarding provisions created and benevolent grants made to the Patarni Deuchelis of Doti’ makes an excellent study to illuminate this malevolent history. Historian Gyanmani Nepal writes in Nepal Nirukta, “Men would seduce Deuchelis with promises of marriage only to later abandon them, or they would rape the women without proper compensation.” Their singing and dancing was also used strategically during the Gorkha-Bhot war of CE 1856 to discover the secrets of the enemy. Nepal’s studies show that some ‘Patarnis’ from Doti were acquisitioned to the capital city of Kathmandu if they were found attractive, and that women were sold to India and Tibet by the state itself.
Women were sold to India and Tibet by the state itself.
The stories of Jung Bahadur and his lineage acquisitioning ‘Patarnis’ to the capital can still be read and heard. Kailali and Kanchanpur were part of the ‘new country’, properties of the Ranas, domains where their word was law. How difficult would it have been for them to acquire beautiful women like the ‘Patarnis’ of the Far West? Young children and women were bought like chattel to train as attendants, entertainers, and concubines. But there is no dearth of people who consider the same Jung Bahadur the ‘second unifier of Nepal’.
Jung Bahadur — who created history in terms of his exploitation of the female body and whose state actively sanctioned the sale of women into Tibet — created the Muluki Ain in CE 1854. The Muluki Ain sought to control the bodies and the sexuality of women, especially of the ‘untouchable’ women. The Muluki Ain is said to continue the legacy of the Nyayavikasini created during the reign of Jayasthiti Malla in CE 1324. According to the cultural historian Prayagraj Sharma, Nyayavikasini was the first attempt by the state to codify various traditions and cultures of different. Before Jayasthiti Malla, the practices of untouchability and caste were religious rules. For kings, the practice and enforcement of discrimination based on untouchability and caste formed the essence of religion and justice. As a result, more than any other people, the bodies of ‘untouchable’ women have received punishment more often than justice. Welts from that history are still apparent on the bodies of those women. Screams of the same pain still echo in the words of that woman from the Far West.
Practice of untouchability as religion and law of the dharmadhikari
The eyes of the woman I met during my travels seem to watch me still. In the turns of her eyes, I see the turns in Nepal’s legal history. The history of Nepal’s laws is distinguished by the tradition of deciding punishments based on the caste of the perpetrator. Even more central is the fact that the income of the state-appointed dharmadhikar (chief criminal judge) or religious-enforcer derived from the fines handed out for contravening caste laws. Prakash Osti has written of such facts being included in a Nepali legal scholar’s answers to the historian Brian Hodgson.
Systems instituted by religions and religious moderators like dharmadhikar, along with the Muluki Ain, show us that as more ‘untouchables’ are declared criminals, the incomes of the ‘touchables’ increase. As long as the criminalization of the ‘untouchables’ remains in place, the prosperity of the ‘touchables’ is guaranteed. The pillars of justice in Nepal are fixed atop the corpses of generations upon generations of the children of Dalits. These pillars were in the persons of ditthas, vicharis and dharmadhikar. Economic historian Mahesh Chandra Regmi writes that ‘dharmadhikar’ was a Brahmin appointed by the king to discharge functions and duties concerning caste, communal, and sexual relations, etc. Why was it necessary to decide whether acts related to ritual purity of food and water, communal, and sexual relations adhered to religious laws? These three issues are at the center of people’s daily lives. Control over them was instituted to perpetuate power dynamics that favored a particular group.
The privileged group studied the scriptures, held discourses and defined justice and injustice. Some became judges by their caste while others became criminals by their caste. These reservations of privileges in religion, law, and for dharmadhikar have always existed.
Some became judges by their caste while others became criminals by their caste.
The position of the dharmadhikar was reserved for Brahmins who had studied Hindu scriptures. Italian scholar Luciano Petech states that the use of the term dharmadhikar can be traced to more than seven hundred and fifty years ago. It has been used to refer to the Brahmin Jashabrahma in the chapter Pushpikavakya of the book Divyashuddhiprakarana of circa 1274 CE. They held touchability and untouchability as the main criteria while deciding the legality of actions. Naturally, the Shudras, the ‘untouchables’, and the groups that could be bought and sold (masinya and katinya – groups rendered chattel by their condition as slaves and expendables) were disproportionately the victims of such a system.
The dharmadhikar, who considered the act of designating people as Shudras, ‘untouchables’ or masinya and katinya as religious deeds, had been declaring the very wombs of women untouchable and impure. How could ‘divine trails’ by such dharmadhikar be just? How can scriptures and dharmadhikar for whom untouchability is the religion deliver justice to the untouchables? Is it possible that the Hindu state of Nepal formalized religion, law, scripture, and dharmadhikar in order to structuralize and institutionalize injustice?
Cultural historian Prayagraj Sharma states: “The Hindu state maintains a religio-cultural prejudice. This prejudice is to make the society follow ideals directed by the state. This is testimony to the fact that Hindu jurisprudence has forever expressed sentiments contained in religious scriptures.”
Is it possible that the Hindu state of Nepal formalized religion, law, scripture and dharmadhikar in order to structuralize and institutionalize injustice?
Such prejudices are even more pronounced when they concern ritual purity of food and water, and when they pertain to sexual relations. In the Hindu state, a Brahmin who committed a sexual crime against a woman from the Shudra community was given the minutest punishment. If a man from the Shudra community unwittingly committed an act of sexual crime against a woman from the twice-born community, his sexual member was cut off and his property was confiscated. If he had knowingly committed the crime, he was executed. Kshatriya or Vaishya men who committed sexual crimes against Brahmin women were also given punishments similar to that given to a Shudra, or were burned alive. This idea is further explored in the book Crime and Punishment in Nepal by historians Tulsiram Vaidya and Triratna Manandhar.
As I turned the pages in legal tomes and religious scriptures, the eyes of the middle-aged sister from the Far West continued to haunt me. It seemed that those unstill eyes repeatedly asked — Did not those laws, rules and scriptures designate an entire community as untouchables? Did they not aid and abet in furthering the exploitation of the bodies of women they rendered untouchable? I feel haunted by the accusations in her eyes, all the way to the hallways and classrooms of the school I attend.
There is no dearth in the classrooms of law, of teachers and students who see the most cruel and inhumane practice in all of human history as an appropriate social structure and glue for fraternity and coexistence. The professor of law, while teaching about the Nepali legal system, would say that the state and its jurisprudence derived chiefly from smriti or scriptures like the Manusmriti, Yamasmriti, Brihaspatismriti, or Ushanasmriti. To listen to him teach, it felt as if Nepali jurisprudence is the acme of perfection.
I repeatedly ask myself — Why isn’t Hindu jurisprudence taught through a critical lens? The critical faculty to discern right and wrong, justice and injustice, rational and irrational is the fundamental quality of a student of law — this is what we were taught on the very first day of our class on jurisprudence. Those words are imprinted on me without ever having had to memorize them. But there is no chapter in Hindu jurisprudence that designates the rationality of a specific caste as the acceptable one. But within every sub-heading, sentence, word, and their meaning the rationality of a fixed but unexpressed caste is accepted as pure and taught and studied accordingly. This nature of instruction seems to have been prevalent since long before Tribhuwan University was even conceptualized. Because of such a system of education, issues of untouchability become manifest even while drinking tea with a colleague who is a judge. And, it is proudly considered one’s religious and cultural right to be able to practice untouchability.
Why isn’t Hindu jurisprudence taught through a critical lens?
In the Hindu state, religion was the law, religion was the politics, and religion was the culture. The dharmadhikar was that part of the state, who created the structures for the ‘rule of the religion’, implemented it, and benefited from it. The post of the dharmadhikar gradually disappeared after the end of the Rana rule, and carried on in the name of the Muluki Ain. And, as the ‘rule of the religion’ took on the exterior of ‘democracy’, judges at legal courts came to occupy the place of the dharmadhikar. It is perhaps impossible to distinguish between dharmadhikar and court-judges when seen through the eyes of the women designated untouchable and expendable by religion; it is difficult to find any evidence that such women ever received any justice from them. These laws, rules, and provisions made by rulers who felt entitled to exploit any woman they found attractive, and who even sold women to foreign countries—if these laws are seen through the eyes of the women who were their victims, they appear terrifying even now.
It is true that I also used to search for history only in books. But the past is also in the present maintained as a legacy. History and its truths are tattooed onto the bodies of every woman living in the present. Not only in the life of that sister from the Far West, but also in the life of her daughter sitting by her side. The weedy plot given to her by the state amidst a political struggle between knowledge and power, the blisters on her hands earned from clearing out the banmara weed, her skeletal frame, and her eyes holding aloft innumerable, impenetrable questions—that was the living history, the living truth. The wombs of ‘untouchable’ women like her are the true witnesses to History.
The New Muluki Ain 1964 (which is but a revision of the Muluki Ain of 1854) and the Revision of the Muluki Ain, 2017, do not include provisions for a dharmadhikar. The tradition of the dharmadhikar has been consigned to history, but new iterations of the dharmadhikar are alive, and continue to be created. How can we ever feel ownership of a justice system maintained by this ‘dharmadhikar’ that continues to designate ‘untouchable’ the wombs of women, and that continues to designate as criminals the ‘untouchables’?
This article originally appeared in Kantipur, March 17, 2018 in Nepali, and is an adapted version of a translation by Prawin Adhikari.
Sarita Pariyar Sarita Pariyar holds a Master’s degree in sociology and a Bachelor's degree in journalism and English literature from Tribhuvan University. She is the founder of the Darnal Award for Social Justice, and serves as a board member of SAMATA Foundation, a think tank that works for the rights and dignity of Nepal's Dalits.