A Dalit Woman's Perspective (1)

by Dr. Monica Melanchthon
Gurukul Lutheran Theological College



On hearing that I was asked to present a paper on the theme above, a friend of mine asked me what was "dalit" about me. A valid question I suppose. I have been aware for some time now that my roots are dalit, although my experience has not been one of a dalit woman. The question of caste, both in my immediate and extended family, seemed like a non-issue while I was growing up. In retrospect, it was an issue because it was always spoken of in whispers; the name of our caste was never mentioned aloud. I realize now that this hesitancy to speak of our caste identity is very characteristic of many middle-class dalit Christian families who have somehow been able to slip through the cracks of the caste system, so to speak, and have made it in the world economically. The rationale behind this hesitancy is that Christianity does not recognize caste. By becoming Christians, their identity has changed. They are Christians, and their original caste identity is inconsequential. Part of my identity, therefore, has been hidden from me because of the social implications involved of being a member of the dalit community - the so-called untouchable caste groups.

In recent decades, the suffering and brokenness of Jesus Christ has had significant theological implications. My own understanding of the issue and the importance of Jesus in the dalit experience began with my appreciation of Jesus's presence in the life of a woman who worked in our home several years ago - someone whom we called "Amma."

My memories of her are still vivid. She was a hard-working woman from a scheduled caste community in the state of Andhra Pradesh who carried the burden of supporting herself and her family. She came to work every day, even when she did not feel like it, to clean, to wash and to cook. Each evening she returned home from work to take care of her only son. The daily struggle to make ends meet was not new to her. It had become her way of life since the death of her husband left her at the young age of 19 with a small child to support. The picture I have always had of her is a poor, scheduled caste woman without much formal education doing what she could to make it economically in the world with few material resources for survival.

I admired her because of her determination to survive. Despite the enormous difficulties involved in trying to do so, she never complained. She continued to smile, to joke and always made our days very pleasant. I often wondered how she did it. She never failed to go to church; and seeing how she never hesitated to get on her knees and pray and noticing her Bible that she always kept in the pantry to read during a free moment, I had no doubt that it was because of her faith in the God of Jesus Christ that she could keep going every day.

Reflecting back on Amma's faith, I now realize that she must have trusted that the Jesus Christ to whom she prayed had a special appreciation of her condition. This was a Jesus who seemingly identified with a poor dalit woman in her day-to-day struggle just to make it. Amma was certain that Jesus cared about the trials and tribulations of an ordinary dalit woman. Jesus Christ empowered her to get through each day with dignity.

As I now learn more about the faith that supports the dalit community in its struggle against casteism and the many accompanying trials of this struggle, I discover that Amma's faith is not unique. The dalit Christian experience is one in which the dalit people confirm the presence of a sustaining and liberating Jesus in their lives. This Jesus reflects the dalit people's emphatic negation of any notion that the God of Jesus Christ put them on this earth to be treated as anything less than full human beings. This sustaining and liberating Christ of the dalit faith represents God's urgent movement in human history to set the dalits free from the demons of casteism in India.

Whether she consciously thought about it or not, Amma's faith, shared by many others in her condition, suggested something about the dalitness of Jesus and His identification with the dalit struggle against the coercion and tyranny of caste supremacy.

My next encounter with the Dalit Jesus came through my study of dalit literature, both secular and theological. Stories, life experiences and poems, such as the following written by dalit women, reflected not only their plight but also the source of their strength and courage to carry on the struggle:

"We shall break the
Class oppression
That thrives on
Women's labor.
If we don't,
We'll have to spend
All our lives in useless tears.

"Hunger pangs drive
Us to toil every day.
We slave
All day for a handful of gruel.
O, the merciless masters
Chase us on the one side,
And our starving children
Wail on the other side.

"O, the torments of
Our drunken husbands
On the one hand,
The persecution by our
Creditors on the other hand,
`What is right -
To live or to die?'
Is the nagging question
Burning in our hearts.

"Having borne
Unlimited number of children,
We have become
Victims of earth's displeasure
So we'll cast our
Burdens upon the Lord
And dare to stand up and
Fight for our release!" (2)

Such poetry and other dalit literature that ultimately culminated in dalit theological reflection defines Jesus as a dalit based on the humble beginnings of Jesus as well as the identification of Jesus and His relationship to the struggles of the poor, of women, of the marginalized and the untouchables of His time.

These encounters highlighted the moral fallibility of feminists, such as myself, who suffer oppression as women but who are tempted to participate in the oppression of other men and women as the beneficiaries of class privilege. We cannot continue to be naive about the destructive, dehumanizing effects of our actions on others. If those of us who "have made it" have a realistic sense of our own capacity for "sin," then we will be better able to assess the impact of our actions on dalit people and to understand more clearly what a commitment to the well-being of all women and all humankind requires of us. It is a feminism which focuses on the experiences of women and emphasizes the value of relationships that are characterized by mutual respect, equality and justice and the development of a conception of self and group which recognizes that our own personal freedom and wholeness is diminished when we willingly participate in social relationships that deny those qualities to others. Casteism needs to be seen as the result of collective action to construct and maintain social institutions that provide a disproportionate share of goods, benefits and power to members of the upper caste at the expense of the lower caste groups. To participate without explicit dissent in economic, political and cultural institutions that perpetuate caste privileges is to act to maintain the status quo.

The Dalits

The Hindu caste system in Indian society is part of a wider ideological structure which presupposes that hierarchical relationships between human beings are divinely ordered. The time of its introduction into the Indian social milieu has been a matter of considerable speculation, but the "Varna system" and the hierarchical classification of castes on the basis of occupation and degree of pollution received its clearest articulation in the Manusmriti. An individual is born into a caste group,(3) and the rigidity of the system makes any kind of vertical mobility impossible. One remains in a caste irrespective of one's religion, profession or class, and hence, the primary identification of every Indian, therefore, is derived from his or her caste grouping.

The lowest in the caste structure are the dalits who are the most disadvantaged groups who are believed to have been created to be the slaves of the Brahmans.(4)  Since this is understood to be the very purpose of their existence, they have been exploited economically and socially and denied any power in society. By virtue of their servility, which has meant performing the most menial tasks, they are considered to be polluting. The dalits, therefore, are characterized by poverty, pollution and powerlessness.(5)  These so-called untouchable caste groups identify themselves as "dalits," a term that is more descriptive of their situation and experience than their function or expected duties. The word dalit, although in use for many years, was popularized by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, a dalit himself who brought the issue of the dalits to the forefront of political and social discussion. The term has been defined as "the broken," "the split," "the burst," "the scattered," "the crushed," "the downtrodden," etc.(6)

The Context of Dalit Christians

The social status of Christian dalits is very much like that of dalits within Hinduism or Islam. They are still considered polluting; they are poor and powerless and experience alienation. Unlike the Hindu or Muslim dalits, however, Christian dalits have not been granted any economic or political privileges by the State. Much of this has resulted from the common assumption that Christians have been helped enough by foreign missionaries and, hence, do not need further help from the State. Dalit Christians, therefore, continue to be poor and weak, both economically and politically, oppressed by society, discriminated against by the State and marginalized in the Christian community. In reaction to this and in order to avail themselves of the benefits of the State, many dalits, although Christian, are hesitant to publicly acknowledge their Christian identity and instead continue to maintain their dalit status, at least on paper.

In India, Christian dalits face a multiplicity of oppression: first, in the society at large, along with other dalits, for being dalits; by other non-Christian dalits and upper caste Hindus for adopting a foreign religion; and within the Christian community by upper caste Christians, or those who have been able to advance economically - the richer dalits. The dalit Christian community, much like the non-Christian dalit community, is also characterized by internal divisions based on subcastes and language and regional affinities.(7) Dalit Christians have received a great deal of criticism for the passivity which they exhibit in reacting to the political and social reality of the country.

The Plight of Dalit Christian Women

My description of Amma's life needs to be understood within the larger framework of the experience of dalit women. Amma was a domestic servant and lived in a city; therefore, the problems she faced are somewhat different from those of rural dalit women. Dalit women have been identified as the "poorest of the poor" or the "dalits of the dalits." A dalit woman is thrice alienated because of her caste, her economic status and her gender. She is the property of not only the upper caste family for whom she works but is treated in the same fashion by her own husband. She forms a large part of the unskilled labor force. Her social, economic and emotional servility make her a non-entity. She is subject to the violence of rape, beatings, burning, physical and verbal harassment, both outside and inside her home and family, is denied adequate educational opportunities and health care and is the first to be targeted during communal riots. The continuing depletion of natural resources, the displacement of communities because of development projects and the resulting ecological crisis have affected the dalit woman the most since she is the most dependent on these natural resources for her and her family's survival.

The Christian dalit woman, in addition to the many problems confronting her in society and in her home, has to deal as well with discrimination within the Church because of her gender, her class and her caste by upper caste Christians. While dalit women are the most regular in attendance in church and in most cases form a majority of church members, they are not adequately represented in any administrative bodies of the Church and are denied full participation. The androcentric theology and dogmas of the Church and its patriarchal structures continue to subjugate her and to justify her weak and powerless social status by assuring her that self-denial and self-sacrifice are a woman's best virtues. Patriarchal culture and androcentric theology have contributed to her oppression by viewing her as an inferior being who must always subordinate herself to so-called male supremacy, as an inferior being who is always treated with bias and condescension.

Despite all of these problems, dalit women are the strongest in faith, in courage, in perseverance, and are extremely resilient and dignified. They are hard-working and very often are the primary caregivers in the home and manage the home single-handedly, even in cases where the husband is present. In spite of being the most marginalized, they sustain the community and the church.

The Gospel in the Dalit Struggle

John Webster in his book about the history of the dalits calls attention to the fact that there have been three types of Christian theological reflection that have been done with reference to the dalits. The first was what he calls a "theology about dalits," which emphasized God's love for them as individuals and proclaimed that a better life was awaiting them - an otherworldly view of salvation. Such an emphasis was made to bring into sharp contrast the Hindu value system that negated their humanity and dignity and hope. The second response was "theology for dalits," which focused on the dalits as being part of the new community of God. They were no more dalits but a part of God's community with a mission to serve. The third and more recent is "theology by dalits" themselves, who have now come to face their reality and that, despite becoming Christian, they were still dalits in every sense of the term - their suffering and discrimination continued just like those who were not converted.(8)  With this realization came the understanding that God also shares in the suffering and provides healing through God's identification with their suffering.

This self-assertion on the part of dalits themselves has resulted in a call to acknowledge one's roots despite the social implications. The recognition of one's roots is a necessary precursor to the identity of the dalit person as an individual in the community of God. By acknowledging one's roots, the dalit person links his or her identity with those of his or her ancestors. Since this identity is bound with belonging to a community, it is an essential component of the dalit struggle.

Jesus Christ is understood to be the Dalit God, the Servant God, whose humanity and divinity is understood in terms of His dalitness, who was a dalit from the time of His birth until His death on the cross. The strength of the Dalit Christ is that it embraces the dalits in their suffering, rejection and shame (Mark 8:31, 9:12, 10:45). Identity with the Dalit Christ does not only express an acknowledgment of what it means to be from outside the caste structure but also an acknowledgment of the total experience of the dalits, their heritage and culture.(9)   It is this Dalit Christ who fosters a sense of self-esteem and pride in the dalits as they come to understand that who they are is not despised but valued by the Divine Being. Jesus Christ through His ministry opposed casteism by entering into their suffering. The Gospel is Good News because it proclaims liberation from all that enslaves and provides hope for a dignified life of wholeness. It is the message of Jesus that gives the dalit individual a sense of self-esteem and confidence and the necessary power to challenge existing structures.

A Critique of Dalit Theology

The strength of the Dalit Jesus is that it embraces the dalits in their brokenness, in their suffering; they are able to see themselves in Jesus. This very strength, however, is also a weakness. Dalitness must involve more than just being a particular caste or identifying with a particular cultural and historical experience. It must include as well an ethical concern and commitment to the well-being and freedom of all dalit people. By calling Christ "dalit," dalit theologians clearly have responded to the need to identify Christ as one who opposes casteism. The Dalit Christ condemns caste oppression. The problem is that it does not go beyond that; it does not portray the complexity of caste oppression. Specifically, it does not address the fact that dalits oppress each other and that casteism is not the only barrier to dalit freedom.

Dalit theology does not confront the reality of oppression within the dalit community. The Dalit Jesus does not point to the reality of <dalit against dalit oppression, for dalits are victimized by each other. The dalit community and church are often divided against themselves over different issues. For instance, the "haves" in the dalit community - the middle class - often look down upon the "have-nots" - the poor. They harbor a sense of resentment toward them. A spirit of "each to his or her own" prevails over a spirit to help those who remain trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty. The dalits, therefore, are left divided among themselves.

What does the Dalit Christ say to those from the dalit community who are to some extent integrated into the caste, political and economic structures of Indian society and who diligently and vigilantly protect their positions within those structures, even at the expense of other dalit people? How does the Dalit Christ challenge those from that same community who look down on those dalits who have not made it? What does the Dalit Christ have to say to those who hold on to their caste identity only in order to reap the benefits of affirmative action or the reservation policy, who, therefore, will not publicly acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, who by availing themselves of these benefits deprive those who really need them?

The Dalit Christ has failed to impact the Church. This is largely because dalit theology is too far removed from the churches, even those that are predominantly comprised of dalit members. Dalit theology has become too identified with theological institutions at the expense of its identification with the Church. There is a gap between dalit theologians and the dalit pastors and the communities that they serve and minister to. For greater impact, we need to find ways to bridge or perhaps close this gap.

Despite the strong emphasis on suffering and identification with the brokenness of the individual, dalit theology has failed to acknowledge adequately the dalit woman and the uniqueness of her experience in the analysis. Neither the presence nor the role of dalit women in the community's struggle for dignity and freedom is acknowledged. Despite the pivotal roles played by dalit women, they are never accorded the same treatment or respect as their male counterparts.

A Dalit Christ is inadequate for understanding the meaning of Jesus Christ for a community besieged by more than just casteism and classism. Dalit theologians have probed the structural links between casteism and economic exploitation. A more adequate social analysis of the roots of human oppression also requires attention to the interconnectedness between casteism, sexism and economic and political domination, a task that is especially urgent. No authentic theology of liberation can arise out of these communities without specifically addressing the liberation of women in the above spheres, both within the Church and in society. Dalit women, therefore, need to continue to name their experience of oppression and to keep the issue of sexism before the community and the Church and as an element of dalit theology until it has been eliminated.

The Significance of the Gospel to Dalit Women

As significant as dalit women are to the contemporary dalit struggle and as obvious as their discriminatory treatment is, what accounts for the failure of dalit theologians to even acknowledge their existence? Where it is acknowledged, women are classed along with all oppressed groups, denying them the uniqueness of their struggle and experience. The answer to this question may be found in the fact that dalit women have not drawn sufficient attention to their particular experience. Dalit women have not articulated with consistency or clarity the complexity of their oppression. They have not explicitly identified the reality of sexism as they encounter it. Being products of a culture that socializes them to be submissive, they are ambivalent to asserting themselves as women. Is their loyalty to the dalit community as a whole preventing them from advancing their rights as equal participants in the dalit struggle? The failure to assert themselves no doubt has contributed to dalit theologians' inability to recognize the importance of the experience of dalit women for determining Christ's meaning for all dalit people. I think this is only one contributing factor, however.

It is also necessary to acknowledge that male theologians are also victims of socialization in a patriarchal society who, therefore, are only able to see reality through their male lenses. Being men, they are not able to take women seriously and have adopted the language and attitudes of men who seek liberation within sexist parameters. Blinded by their maleness, they are prevented from appreciating the vital facets of Jesus's ministry.

For example, in their treatment of the narrative concerning the Samaritan woman at the well, they highlight the fact that she was a Samaritan, an untouchable in Jewish society who Jesus responded to with compassion, but they do not acknowledge her gender, that is, the fact that it was a Samaritan woman. The male Jesus who was able to reject the privileges of being male in a patriarchal society, therefore, is lost. This is true as well for the impact of the story of the Syrophoenician woman who confronted both the maleness and the Jewishness of Jesus (Matt. 15:21-28) and the Song of Mary that envisions a world of wholeness and equality (Luke 1:46-55), both of which are texts that could have become models for dalit theology, enabling it to move beyond the advantages of maleness and to take seriously the reality of dalit women. Consequently, present-day interpretations of dalit theology are focused solely on the concerns of caste oppression as it has been understood from a dalit male perspective. This inability to move beyond their maleness to consider dalit women's lives has profoundly contributed to their one-sided understanding of what is meant for Christ to be a dalit.

As a result, a new dalit women's consciousness is emerging, reflected in much of the currently available literature written by dalit women that challenges the caste, class and male ideology of society and the Church. An encouraging sign is that dalit women are naming their oppression and revealing the complexity of the dalit women's reality in the form of stories, poems and songs. As already noted, they are identifying themselves as the "dalits of the dalits" to point out what it means to be an oppressed member of an already oppressed group. Ignored or marginalized by the women's movement as a whole and their male counterparts in the dalit struggle, dalit women are on their own in some respects. They are searching for ways in which to gain their freedom without alienating themselves from the dalit community as a whole.

They are also addressing the apparent contradictions within the Church, which espouses Jesus as liberator and yet continues to oppress its members on the basis of their caste and gender. Dalit Christian women are making attempts to develop and articulate a theology and understanding of Jesus Christ that is more reflective of the interests of the entire dalit community.

Dalit women have traditionally been concerned not just for their own welfare but for the welfare of their entire community, their husbands, their sons and daughters. This inherent concern for the community could lead them towards the articulation of a theology of wholeness, of dialogue, where they are able to join hands with all other religions and secular forces who work for the cause of the community. This multidimensional approach enables one to confront casteism, classism and sexism as it affects the community. This emphasis on wholeness might, therefore, challenge those in the community who have become more affluent or do not acknowledge their identity as dalits.

Much of this theology of wholeness is based on their reading of the Gospel and the egalitarian message of Jesus Christ that has a special appeal to these unfortunate people. Jesus offers to them a model of human authority that is neither aggressive nor competitive, neither distant nor competitive. The hierarchical paradigm of power, therefore, is replaced by a paradigm of mutual influence or relational power that leads to collaborative efforts to right the wrong rather than competition for power. The model of leadership that is being suggested is one of a spider's web that is characterized by mutual respect and responsibility.(10)

Following the examples of women in the New Testament, dalit women are called to rise up from their passivity because it supports them in their fight for survival and freedom. In their experience of suffering and brokenness, the crucified Jesus has become a model for them in their prophetic task. Their suffering is accepted as their lot, but their hope lies in the Resurrection which will bring about an altered and just society.(11)

This emphasis on the Suffering Jesus as a model for dalit women causes much discomfort for me personally because such a glorification of suffering is a tool often used to keep women in their place and to hinder them from breaking out of the structures that oppress them, thus, preventing them from experiencing liberation in the here and now. While it is important to acknowledge that the Dalit Christ is present wherever people are engaged in struggle for a community's wholeness and that the face of Christ is seen in the poorest of dalit women, the emphasis needs to be given to the empowering Christ who through His resurrection proved victorious over all life-denying forces.


  1. I understand the term "Gospel" to refer to the liberating Word of God and the term "culture" to mean "a way of life."
    I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. M. E. Prabhakar for sharing his thoughts on the subject and of introducing me to the literature of dalit theology.
  2. Women's Organization for Liberation and Development, "Dalit Women," Towards a Dalit Theology, translated from Tamil by M. E. Prabhakar (Delhi: Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society [CISRS] and Christian Dalit Liberation Movement [CDLM]), p. 168.
  3. Rig Veda, X, 90:11-12.
  4. Manu Dharma Sastra, VIII, pp. 413-414.
  5. Cf. V. Devasahayam, "Pollution and Poverty and Powerlessness: A Dalit Perspective," in A. P. Nirmal (ed.), A Reader in Dalit Theology (Madras: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College), pp. 1- 22.
  6. Cf. A. P. Nirmal, "Doing Theology from a Dalit Perspective," A Reader in Dalit Theology, >op. cit., p. 139.
  7. Cf. M. E. Prabhakar, "The Search for a Dalit Theology," Towards a Dalit Theology ,op. cit., pp. 37-39.
  8. Cf. John Webster, A History of Dalit Christians (Delhi: Indian Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge [ISPCK], 1995).
  9. A. P. Nirmal, "Doing Theology from a Dalit Perspective," op. cit., pp. 65-69.
  10. Rose Paul, "Educated Women in the Marriage Market," in V. Devasahayam (ed.), Dalits and Women: Quest for Humanity (Madras: Gurukul Summer Institute, 1992), p. 176.
  11. Ibid.

(Ed. note: This reflection was presented at the Asian Workshop on Gospel and Culture organized by the Christian Conference of Asia-Urban Rural Mission [CCA-URM] in November 1995 in Quezon City, Philippines.)