There is also a steady stream of discourse dedicated to how Indian women are gaining sexual agency, in that they are no longer hesitant when it comes to casual sex, being with married men, or having an open relationship. Hook-ups and casual dating, via an app or otherwise, are perceived to be creating a sex-positive culture for Indian women who may otherwise be inhibited from experiencing unbridled sexual pleasure inside or outside of a relationship.

Unsurprisingly, this mainstream feminist discourse is predominantly led by women from upper-caste/bourgeoise locations. Not all Dalit women (cisgender, heterosexual, urban, and educated), who consider dating as a possible route to finding romantic partners, necessarily share the same experience.

At the heart of a good, intimate relationship is the understanding that those involved in sustaining that bond are of value. But how is this value determined and who in the relationship determines it? The highest value, as defined by Hinduism, has traditionally been ascribed to the Brahmin woman, followed by the Kshatriya, the Vaishya, and the Shudra. The modern-day ideal is also a savarna or a savarna-passing woman, who is typically light-skinned and able-bodied, belonging to a family that has monetary and social capital, and embodying qualities considered to be feminine.

The farther one is from this ideal, the more undervalued she is perceived to be. Within relationships, this perception, albeit external, translates into an unhealthy power imbalance, leading to a potential compromising of one’s rights, desires, and authenticity.

Dalit women who carry the double burden of gender and caste, and are one of the most socially undervalued in India, are therefore under constant pressure to project an acceptable version that mimics the savarna ideal. In a romantic pursuit or a partnership, we are expected to operate along a behavioural band that is far narrower than what is required of a non-Dalit woman.

Needless to say, the existence of this ever-present mandate to be something one is not, so as to constantly prove one’s value or romantic potential, even in the most personal of spaces that is ideally supposed to feel like home, is unfair at best and cruel at worst. And the price that is asked of us, in return for a semblance of normalcy, is our safety, dignity, and mental health.

Seeking love when Dalit and woman

While I do not know of every Dalit woman’s experience, I can say (based on mine and that of my friends/ acquaintances) that dating in India overall is nowhere close to the rosy picture characterised by the absence of caste or the prominence of female sexual agency. Dalit women are repeatedly stereotyped as:

Victims: We are primarily viewed as victims and survivors of various kinds of violence. Reification of the Dalit identity has led to the boxing of our existence, whose dimensions are solely defined by the savarna gaze. Our self-assertions of identity are commodified to create a warped limiting of our lives, in effect creating an image that is helpless and voiceless in the minds of our potential suitors. We are not seen as being capable of desire, love, or happiness; we don’t seem to exist as individuals outside of violence.

Not only does this make us seem unattractive, especially in the context of dating where confidence is generally regarded as an attractive trait, but it also has further implications in an actual romantic or sexual relationship. Because it is assumed that we do not have the power to protect ourselves, our bodies and our labour are grossly undervalued. Intimate violence may follow, whose magnitude is further aggravated by a real (or perceived) lack of monetary and social support in the case of under-privileged Dalit women.

While traditional discourses, most often authored by savarna voices, have concluded that we face intimate violence only at the hands of Dalit men (which in turn has led to the unfair criminalising of Dalit men and boys), our lived realities today speak of another truth. Non-Dalit male partners are far more likely to inflict violence on us both physically and sexually, for the reason that they face far less legal and social consequences when reported.

Unfeminine: The Dalit woman is perceived mostly in comparison to her non-Dalit counterpart: the lighter- skinned savarna woman who is pure, quiet and delicate, versus the dark-skinned Dalit woman who is polluting, loud and tough. Pop culture through the ages has helped propagate this dichotomy.

By casting only light-skinned savarna women as love interests of the male protagonist, it has implied that the one deserving of love and a happily ever-after will need to have a certain set of physical attributes and come from a certain social location. Even in the case of Dalit male protagonists, the one who catches his eye or steals his heart is most often not a Dalit woman (Sairat, Thalapathy, Kadhal), who when represented, is often depicted as loud-mouthed, angry, and verbally abusive.

In the real world, this translates into an angry Dalit woman stereotype, which lacks femininity and therefore cannot evoke the feeling of romantic love in a heteronormative sexual setting. Particularly in the case of a politicised Dalit woman who is active on social media and the digital space, this stereotype is repeatedly used against her in an effort to invalidate her political critiques.

The mere voicing of her opinions and the vocalising of her lived experiences invites a barrage of accusations from both Dalits and non-Dalits. If such a woman does succeed in finding a heterosexual romantic partner, she is expected to maintain certain behaviours so as to sustain the relationship. These include subscribing to the ideals of a traditional wife/girlfriend, finding ways to integrate herself into the partner’s social circle, and leaving her “identity politics” outside the door.

Thus, in most cis-hetero relationships, the price paid by a Dalit woman (stereotyped as angry and unfeminine) towards its success is far higher than that required of a non-Dalit woman. The latter can retain her political self and still be perceived as feminine, while the former will have to keep proving her femininity by choosing to not voice her political opinions, which are typically deemed as irrational. Voicing of these opinions, either publicly or privately, means the potential end to a relationship.

Promiscuous: The dichotomy of the Dalit vs Non-Dalit woman also shapes how the former is perceived and treated sexually. As Rowena points out, the upper-caste woman’s body is regarded as sacred, protected by the men in her family, based on notions of chastity, virginity and docile femininity. But the Dalit woman’s body has traditionally been regarded as a site of sexual pleasure and entertainment without the need for legitimacy.

She says, “upper caste women are constantly imagined and represented as chaste and sexually controlled, in opposition to lower caste women who are repeatedly portrayed as sexually loose, hyper and ‘immoral,’ a process that starts right from the differences in the representations of Sita and Shoorpanakha in the Ramayana.”

Today’s urban Dalit woman navigating the modern dating/matrimonial space is not spared this stereotyping. What the sexually liberated non-Dalit woman does and articulates is accepted as a credible political response, while what the Dalit woman does is perceived as shameful.

Casual sex, being with married men, and having open relationships, which are touted as sexually liberating and indicative of a sex-positive culture does not hold the same meaning for Dalit women. Particularly in the case of men having savarna women as partners, their interest in Dalit women outside of the legitimate relationship is only an urban/modern version of upper-caste men sexually exploiting disadvantaged Dalit women that work in their fields/houses. In most cases, the savarna partner is not threatened by this arrangement; she continues to be the legitimate entity in the equation while the Dalit woman is relegated to the task of satisfying the man’s unconventional sexual desires.

Where do we go from here?

The stereotyping that Dalit women face when navigating the modern dating space is likely to be far more sinister than what I have described above. And the more aware she becomes of the dynamics, the tougher it becomes for her to trust – a key ingredient needed in finding and sustaining a loving relationship.

She is constantly under pressure to project an acceptable version that should be sexy but not loose, docile but not weak, confident but not too strong, lest she be stereotyped, only to be further exploited or victimized. Lack of social capital or support, in the form of friends or family, also makes it difficult when dealing with break-ups or legitimising social unions.

Although this subject requires more in-depth articulation in terms of what we can do as individuals, allies, families, and communities, I believe it is important to start with the following:

  1. Rethink the discourse around polyamory, open relationships and casual sex in the context of modern heterosexual relationships. Although these are, by definition, sex positive and may work as liberal alternatives for mainstream feminists who come from privileged social locations, it could potentially be exploitative for Dalit women.
  2. As progressive communities, it is important to love and cherish Dalit women for who they are and what they are becoming. Constantly prioritising the fragility of non-Dalit women or choosing to perceive them as the ones worthy of romantic love or legitimacy are typical ways in which Dalit women are undervalued in private spaces. This must stop.
  3. Have a serious discourse on the politics of desirability within the Indian context. Who we choose to have sex with, be ‘friends with benefits’ with, and then go on to have committed, exclusive relationships with, are political. This cannot be downplayed as personal preferences. Social location by virtue of caste, race, class, religion, ethnicity, and other markers plays a huge role in determining our romantic and sexual choices.
  4. Actively challenge the dominance of the savarna and the cis-hetero male gaze, which continues to propagate the Madonna/Whore dichotomy in its various cultural manifestations, desires only certain types of bodies, and pigeonholes Dalit women as irrationally angry women or other stereotypes as described above.
  5. We are a long way off from creating a world that values Dalit women in both the public and the private space. Modernity has not ensured an egalitarian world for everyone. Unless we are willing to seriously question our privileges across every space, our role in holding up negative stereotypes of Dalit women, and our personal choices in love and sex, what we do in the name of anti-caste politics will only be performative.

Apps do not kill caste; we do.

Excerpted with permission from the essay “Swipe Me Left, I’m Dalit” by Christina Dhanaraj, from Love is Not a Word: The Culture and Politics of Desire, edited by Debotri Dhar, Speaking Tiger Books.