Sharmila Rege, though her life was cut far too short, created invaluable change in the realms of intersectional feminism, in freeing sociological thought from the shackles of patriarchal ideology, and in furthering women’s studies. Rege was a powerhouse, a voracious academic, and a passionate activist who exuded humility, warmth, and servitude through all her interactions. Sharmila was born October 7th 1964 in Kohlapur, India and grew up in the city of Pune near Mumbai. She studied in Fergusson’s college Department of Sociology eventually teaching sociology at the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s center in 1991. She would later set up a women’s day care center here in 2002. Sharmila briefly held other professorship positions at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai as well as the University of Pune in the early 2000s, however ultimately became director at the Women’s center until her death from colon cancer in 2013.
Rege’s academic domains were sociology, women’s studies, and women’s movements. Her most notable contribution to academic sociology was her integration of gender, caste and politics, and in her methods of knowledge collection and sharing. Sharmila was novel in her intersectionality, as few academics in women’s studies or Indian feminist activists before her and of her time chose to champion for Dalit (lower caste) women, or critiqued previous literature and thoughts about Dalit feminism. Further, she was novel in her distinction between private lived experiences of Dalit women versus the public showcase of the fight against casteism or anti-caste practices, and included this significance in her analysis of the nexus of caste and gender.
Rege employed unique historiographical methods, and encouraged speaking one’s Truth. Sharmila sought to find a way to help bring marginalized voices into the public’s attention through translations, and recordings of real women. ‘India’s memory’ Sharmila believed, was limited to male upper caste voices, and she wanted to diversify political narratives of public life. The consumption of Dalit (lower caste) testimonials was considered paramount to shifting political narratives. She believed in rewriting history imbued with local oral historical traditions, knowledge, and culture, and publishing the stories with authenticity and candor. Importantly, it was necessary to publish Dalit stories and Dalit voices. If ever, these marginalized voices were published, they were often highly censored in order to corroborate political messages, and so as not to cause uproar. There was a prioritization of the type of work produced surrounding Dalit work, and publishing was controlled by non-Dalits who may have been partial to self-preservation, and secondly there was the political message sent through carefully choosing the words in these works before publication. These practices erased the raw and authentic Dalit experience and was watered down to please a public palate that wished to remain imperceptive. Although English publications of Dalit life were consumed, these publications were not as reaching or as potent as hearing narratives as told by women — the national and global public needed to hear the voices behind the stories.
Sharmila used testimonies – oral histories, and dialogues between different, gendered activists’ groups, and between women who called themselves feminists, yet failed to recognize their privilege in their public forms of activism without fear of caste-based violence, and between women of all walks divided by their geographies, castes, and experiences. Her most famous work, Writing Caste Writing Gender contains nine life narratives of Dalit women activists contextualized in their socio-political and geographical environments and the “radical anti-caste cultural activism of the Dalit counter-publics of the region.” Dalit women especially, Rege recognized, encompassed multiple marginalized identities: gender, race, class, caste and sexuality.
Rege referred to her subjects’ stories as testimonies, as she found the term autobiography to be a product of bourgeois individualism. The distinction between testimony and life-narratives or autobiography lies in reducing stories to the journey of an individual consciousness versus an understanding that our collective consciousness cannot be realized until we hear every voice. Testimonies are a dialogue which take up an interesting space in which it unites the self with the other indirectly “the individual self seeks affirmation in a collective mode.” Sharmila found testimonies to help emancipate the oppressed as it placed emphasis on individual experiences within socially constructed groups while being sensitive to the hierarchies and power structures which allowed such groups to exist. Specifically, these power structures are “access to land and livelihood mediated by the division of intellectual and manual labor from the caste system.”
Rege found repudiation of the legitimacy of her feminist approach of utilizing experience as a source of knowledge from traditionalists, who were grounded in patriarchal foundations and notions that sociology as a discipline should be imbued with “common sense.” Knowledge rooted in experience forms ” narrow, identity politics limiting the emancipatory potential of the Dalit woman’s organizations.” Her belief, and the maxim of her work was creating dialogue and building bridges between different intersectional identities within the feminist movement would strengthen anti-caste feminist politics. “Ethics of disagreement,” Sharmila would say, encourages empathy and “builds solidarity.” She created an epistemological shift in the form of activism from separately, feminist, and anti-caste Ambedkar followers. Dialogue needed to be built between oppressors – those groups which need to inform themselves about the lived experiences and struggles of the marginalized, and the preferred social relations and utopias they benefitted from, and those who were marginalized by one or more identities. Further she strove to form bonds between marginalized groups who thought perhaps they had nothing to do with one another (specifically, attempting to meld feminist activists’ groups (primarily upper caste women) and anti-caste groups (primarily Dalit men) under shared goals, and empathy for those who lay in the intersection of womanhood and the lower caste experience (Dalit women). She did not buy into a version of feminism which did not seek to appreciate and understand the influence of caste on the female experience, nor did she want to see anti-casteism which did not include women.
Writing Caste Writing Gender Academic Sociology:
Rege’s most famous work Writing Caste Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonies explored the political significance of the Dalit Feminist Standpoint.
Writing Caste Writing Gender juxtaposed academic systems, and public knowledge with social practices of caste. Her representation of case as a graded citizenship or as a form of birthright merit was the first formidable challenge to caste studies. In addition, her conception and creation of a Dalit feminist movement challenged academics and the public milieu who long considered the problem of caste to be genderless. Finally, she challenged the study and notion of caste by advocating for Dalit human rights.
Rege took three positions concerning the nexus of gender and caste in sociological thought.
- Feminists should confront direct and indirect patriarchal influences in sociological ideology and practice at the academic and institutional levels.
- The intersectional position of the ‘third-world’ feminist and sociologist must further confront and reconcile the influences of western feminism and sociology.
- The most niche intersectional position of an Indian-gender-sensitive sociologist requires the interrogation of the nuances of caste, class, ethnicity, and gender.
Writing Caste Writing Gender questioned the interconnections and clashing in the struggle for cultural meaning from proponents of the caste system and the struggle for survival from those who were being suffocated by the caste system. Sharmila asks “how is cultural labor gendered, “and always trying to foster dialogue and help varying perspectives understand, she also asks, “how can we discuss caste based cultural labor in our discussion of cultural struggle.”
In Writing Caste Writing Gender Sharmila introduces Dalit Feminist Standpoint. Here, Rege argues that Dalit womanhood has been erased and excluded from anti-caste movements which are primarily male led, and male benefiting. The Dalit man is still considered impure, or less than, based on his ability to control his woman, an argument used to justify his subjugation, and control her sexual conduct. Sharmila corroborated Ambedkar’s definition of caste, further arguing that the endogamy of caste can only thrive as long as women’s sexuality and reproduction are controlled by men. Thus, she manifests sexual politics as being intertwined with caste, and gender in oppressing and controlling women. The problem of caste status affects all women, but compounding marginalized identities affects lower caste (Dalit) women to a greater extent. Brahminism, or the hierarchy of casteism births several forms of patriarchies. Higher caste women cannot hold public or productive jobs, while lower caste women are pawns controlled and utilized by both lower caste men (as their conduct reflects on the men they serve) and by higher caste men and women to serve as religious and political justification of superiority.
Educator of Sociology:
As much as Rege held herself to exacting standards as she sought to refine and improve sociological thought, and shift political paradigms, she equally cared about uplifting and educating students through forbearing, yet critical discussions and instruction. Sharmila had an interest in educating first generation students, and eased their transition into academia with bilingual instruction, and English classes so that knowledge creation and sharing were not hampered by an inability to express oneself authentically in one’s mother tongue. “Pedagogy, for Sharmila, was politics itself,” said Dalit Scholar Chittibabu Padavala. Sharmila was not only a leader academically, but shifted political thought and counseled more effective forms of activism – making her as much a political force as an academic one. “Her academic and activist engagements called repeatedly for rethinking and new imaginations, plus and multifocal conversations”
Her books and articles, in addition to shifting the paradigm of sociological thought surrounding feminism, bore immense potential to shift and combine anti-caste and feminist politics.
Sharmila passed at the young age of 48 in the early 2000s due to colon cancer. Colleagues claim she had a sixth sense that her time on earth was limited, even before diagnosis of her illness, driving her to accomplish, produce, and mentor to her utmost capacity in her days. Her final manuscript Against the Madness of Manu both consolidated her life’s work enlightening as to how the caste system sanctioned gendered violence, particularly turning a blind eye towards the domestic violence of Dalit women, and, Sharmila always one to think of the plight of those she was leaving behind, passed the baton over to Ambedkar as the leader of the Indian women’s movement in her wake. Sharmila would always end her emails with a quote by Ambedkar: “My final words of advice to you are educate, agitate and organize; have faith in yourself. With justice on our side I do not see how we can lose our battle.”
About the author
Ambika Venkatakrishnan: I’m pursuing a major in Economics and a double minor in film studies and peace and conflict studies and I strongly believe in the importance of words.
Sharmila Rege: Feminist, Sociologist, Welder: #IndianWomenInHistory. Feminism In India. https://feminisminindia.com/2017/10/17/remembering-sharmila-rege/.
Group, S. (2020, May 14). Dalit Women Talk Differently – A Critique of Difference and Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position (Summary). Sociology Group: Sociology and Other Social Sciences Blog. https://www.sociologygroup.com/dalit-women-talk-differently-sharmila-rege/.
Rege, S. (n.d.). Sharmila Rege (1964-2013): Tribute to a Phule-Ambedkarite Feminist Welder. EPW. https://www.academia.edu/4865098/Sharmila_Rege_1964_2013_Tribute_to_a_Phule_Ambedkarite_Feminist_Welder.
Sharmila Rege (1964-2013). (n.d.). https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/23528022.pdf.