February 29, 2008

In Conversation: Dr Gail Omvedt

Meena KandasamyDR GAIL OMVEDT (1941) is an American-born Indian sociologist and human rights activist. Some of her notable books are: We Shall Smash This Prison: Indian Women in Struggle (1979), Gender and Technology: Emerging Asian Visions (1994), Dalits and the Democratic Revolution (1994), and Dalit Visions: the Anticaste movement and Indian Cultural Identity (1994).

In this short email interview, Gail responds to questions on caste and gender.

Meena Kandasamy: In our interview-series we had Ruth Manorama speaking to us of her setting up the National Federation of Dalit Women. And your name Gail, was mentioned incessantly as her source of inspiration, her guiding spirit. What made you play such a pivotal role and be so encouraging to establishing a Dalit Women’s movement? How do you historically view this?

Gail Omvedt: I was also interested and involved with the Black movement (that was before they started calling themselves African-Americans; in the 1970s “Black” meant pride) and although I’m a “honky” — that’s the nasty term that used to get used for “whites” — I made a lot of friends. Black women’s writing was always an inspiration, from Angela Davis through Toni Morrison and Alice Walker….beautiful stuff. I can’t read Marathi or other languages quite as well, but I know that you all have so many things to say. bell hooks (another Black woman — she spells her name without capitals) — wrote a book Feminist Theory from Margin to Centre, meaning that people at the margins, the edges, can actually see the farthest and the best. I think she’s right. So who else but Dalit women? So many obstacles and barriers to overcome, so much to do — but I know you can do it!

Another friend here was recently telling me how, in spite of being a Christian, she realized finally that she was being treated as a Dalit and dark — I find the obsession in India with light skin to be ridiculous. All the goddesses are black, aren’t they?

Meena: Today, Mayawati is seen as once of the most powerful symbols of Dalits, as well as women. But otherwise, how do you think the electoral success of the BSP, and the enormous popularity of Mayawati, has influenced Dalit women in general?

Gail: You can answer that better than I can. I suppose women must have identified with her! I liked Kanshi Ram better as a person, but Mayawati also had a great image; I liked her short hair for instance. I had a fight about that with Madhu Kishwar because I said “upper-caste” Hindu women politicians couldn’t get away with short hair but Dalits didn’t mind — I was thinking of Sushma Swaraj and all — she denied it, but I still feel I am right. The “caste-Hindu mind” still wants women to fit the traditional image. Dalits are more open generally, I hope, especially the women.

Meena: Dr Ambedkar said that women were the gateways of the caste system. What are the various dimensions in which caste and sexuality are inter-linked?

Gail: Caste can only survive if women’s sexuality is controlled! To keep the jati identity you have to keep marriages within the jati. In Marathi it’s said roti-beti-vyavahar, “exchange of bread and girls” has to be within the caste. For that to happen, girls have to be guarded and married off when they’re pre-puberty, so there’s no danger to the caste. The man is not polluted if he has sex with anyone, because the semen goes out; the woman is polluted because she takes it in. (This is the way many anthropologists analyze it). So — Manu says, “Women when young must be under control of their father, when adults under control of their husbands, when old under control of their sons, women must never be independent.”

Meena: Dalit women’s autobiographies have made a mark in Marathi literature. Gail, how do you view literature as a liberating tool for women who are otherwise denied the public (political) space?

Gail: Literature has to reach people — it can reach people — and we can make it a “public” space. The political space is only one of many; it can even be damaging to women if the political women support tradition. Individual women can be freer than political women, and they can through writing express revolutionary ideas. The problem we have now is “publishing” — in every sense: how to get our ideas out, how to communicate.

Meena: What is your message to all the young Indian women out there?

Gail: Ambedkar’s words, “educate, agitate, organize” – still hold good for all of us. And women should fight for their land rights; the only reason they don’t have these rights is that the whole system is so patriarchal that only men are viewed as heirs of names, property, and land. This is part of caste-patriarchal oppression and we have to fight together to end it.

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14 comments to In Conversation: Dr Gail Omvedt

  • Thanks for another insightful interview, Meena. Your commitment to the cause of caste eradication is admirable.

  • […] Dalit women, Black women March 16, 2008 Posted by Meena Kandasamy in activism, blogging, dalit, feminism, india, women. trackback In all my confusion, and machine-hopping, I forgot to link to this: an interview with American born Indian feminist and anti-caste activist Gail Omvedt on Ultra Violet. […]

  • Rahul Bhalerao

    Thanks for this interview. I have been a fan of Gail Omvedt ever since I got my hands on “Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste”.

  • kcsubin

    welldon meena,
    good conversation,
    focus on mayavathi needs more attention (i think)
    mayavathi is a simbel to study gender politics

  • suresh

    Ms. Omvedt says:

    I said “upper-caste” Hindu women politicians couldn’t get away with short hair but Dalits didn’t mind — I was thinking of Sushma Swaraj and all — she [Madhu Kishwar] denied it, but I still feel I am right.

    Generalising from a sample size of one, eh? Never a good idea.

    Did Ms. Omvedt check whether Indira Gandhi had long hair or short hair? The Wikipedia article on her has a number of photographs dating to when she was very young; in all of them she has short hair. So what conclusions are we to draw from this? That Indira Gandhi was a Dalit? Or that Mayawati is upper caste? Can Ms. Omvedt point me to an election where the length of Indira Gandhi’s hair was a significant electoral issue?

    This is silly theorising – if I may say so. I am willing to concede that it would be very unlikely to find women with short hair in the BJP. That’s all. But then not all upper caste women are in the BJP. Neither, for that matter, are all upper caste men. And actually, some Dalits – men and women – are in the BJP.

  • suresh,

    yes, ms.omvedt might be focussing on a not-too-significant issue, but i don’t think she was talking about the approval of the upper caste men in the parties you mention.. she probably meant the acceptance of the lower caste voters.. in most of the states that the congress still manages to be a dominant player, it survives mostly on votes from the same sections- lower caste voters who didn’t mind indira gandhi’s short hair, and who don’t mind sonia gandhi’s not-too-long hair.

  • suresh


    true regarding congress support – that was a deliberate political strategy, it used to be known as KHAM (Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim) – but I don’t think hair length was ever an issue with the upper caste voters either. Those in the upper castes who voted against IG did so on grounds other than hair length – at least, that’s my understanding. Incidentally, a significant chunk of upper castes did vote for her, I think. If you have evidence to the contrary, I’d appreciate your sharing it with me.

    I really have no idea why Ms. Omvedt had to resort to what I still consider to be rather silly theorisiing. But yes, this is rather an unimportant issue and not worth bothering about and so I’ll leave you to have the final word.

  • “Caste can only survive if women’s sexuality is controlled”

    I wonder how almost all of power distances in society are reaffirmed by how women are/were treated.
    To me, this linkage was a new perspective.
    Insightful interview! thanks 🙂

  • irene diamond

    Gail is an old friend and I don’t seem to have her current e-mail address. If you could supply it I would be most grateful


    Irene Diamond

  • High Priestess

    I agree with Suresh on the silly generalizations and theorizations of Gail. And whats with her comment that ALL Hindu goddess are black?

    She’s fighting for a good cause but it would be more credible if people who are in the public eye and seen as “representatives” of sorts would educate themselves a bit more on the cultural aspects of the people they are supposedly “representing”. Either that or just remain silent on things they don’t know anything about.

  • Anonymous

    Gail Omvedt’s feminism is a facade to Hindu- baiting and bashing. Any reason is good enough for her. Like Mayavathi’s hair style which is absolutely irrelevant. Jayalalitha who is from the upper caste and was also a chielf minister has danced in Bikinis in her movies. What about it. As a matter of fact the so called upwardly mobile upper caste women have less social restrictions than the so called dalits. Gail’s writing is full of silly generalizations and demonazation of vast majorities of people. A typical pseudo intellectual, a hate monger hiding behind the viel of feminism and progressive ideologies.

  • High Priestess

    “Jayalalitha who is from the upper caste and was also a chielf minister has danced in Bikinis in her movies. ”

    Are you serious?

    I had no idea.

    She looks like she weighs over 300 pounds now.

    I’d love to see her when she was young and in a bikini.

    Any pics?

  • Dalit Nation

    Dear Madam,
    We have great appreciation for your work. We at Dalit Nation inspired by Babasaheb Ambedkar are waging a battle against casteism and Manuwad in our soceity. Please go through some of our articles and links. Dalit Nation is the most widely read website on Dalit issues in the internet. You have clearly identified the problem which Dalits face in India – it is Hindutva. We plan to do a feature in our website the good work done by yourself.


    Keep up the good work
    Warm Regards,
    Dalit Nation

  • i am very much interest to join in your party. What can i do please reply me immidiately.

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