When beauty is a tool to negotiate spaces



Students are learning just rhetoric and politically correct language about caste. Despite many attempts, our educational system is still unable to make them sensitive enough to try to relate their personal life with the theory, as students are not ready to unlearn their prejudices and assumptions about the non-Brahmin population.

First generation Dalit female students, who have migrated to metropolitan universities from across various classes; have no knowledge of the casteism inherent in the elitist culture of these universities. This is not very easily visible but practised vehemently in almost every classroom of the campus. In this post, I will highlight the negotiations and assertions which Dalit girls intentionally and unintentionally have to make in these spaces. These processes sometimes result in higher level of confidence and sometimes come across as the arrogance of Dalit girls. Well, the reception this change gets is not pleasant: confidence is treated as arrogance and stigmatised as another instance of negative caste stereotype.

At first, if we look at the classroom structure at the post-graduate level, we can clearly see class-based groups are formed irrespective of caste. Slowly, caste comes to the fore when the fees have to be paid or the scholarship dates are displayed on the notice board. This period is toughest for Dalit girls who don’t have any visible caste identity, most don’t want to disclose it. Because of the politically correct atmosphere on campus, the so-called upper caste female students cannot express their unease and plain disgust for fellow Dalit students openly, so they slowly start excluding Dalit girls from the group (if there are any at all) and activities. They phrase their sentences thus: “You don’t look like your caste” or “You are different, you don’t represent your caste as such.” This is from those who make attempts to speak to Dalit girls.

So, some very basic questions: What must a Dalit girl look like? More importantly, what is the image of a Dalit girl in their mind? What makes Dalit girls so different from other students? After making several efforts at interacting with upper caste, elite girl students from my years on campus, here are a few responses:
• Dalit girls find it difficult to get married, so they are sent here
• These girls don’t have any sense of dress, or of wearing the right make-up, or manners
• They are in the wrong place; they can never match up to our standards
• They don’t speak politely and are very direct (rude)
• They can speak neither good English nor pure Marathi
• Their eating habits/tastes are gross
• They are not feminine enough
• They don’t belong to our culture
• They are different.

What do these responses reveal? This is gendered casteism clothed in mainstream, elitist materialistic notions of female beauty. Moreover, this beauty is not just the beauty we usually think about, but the beauty which is intricately linked to upper-class lifestyles. Dalit girls have to compete or adjust and live with this constant comparison and evaluation. Branded clothes, heavy accessories, knowing all the non-Indian (international) foods and have regular manicure and pedicure, bleaching for fair and clear skin — and you should be in proper shape.

Can Dalit girls ever match these metropolitan elite standards? There are no financial, cultural and socially privileged opportunities available for most of them. Therefore, when implanted in foreign and elitist settings, it requires not just adopting a novel culture but also results in attempts to get rid of our original Dalit identity, which is largely viewed as a stigma we have to carry.

The FabIndianised culture of the academic intellectual elites of the university campuses is very alien to these girls. I have seen girls who buy fashionable clothes and accessories by doing part-time jobs (when their economic conditions are not sound), or by telling lies to their parents and spending from the pocket money meant for other uses. A lot of money is spent on beauty products and parlours. Dalit girls try their level best to match these elitist metropolitan concepts of beauty on campus. All these are attempts to get a sense of belongingness in that space; rather, we can say, creating their space among elites. But it is certainly futile; it only helps to give you the confidence to be ‘assimilated’ in that space but you still remain with the feeling of failure to achieve a ‘legitimate place’ in that space. Always on edge, you become intolerable in this circle.

Dalit girls do resist attempts to exclude them. They aspire to find their own space. This gives rise to a question: can we call such moves assertion? Or can we see it as negotiating with the changing situation and demands/requirements of the new spaces?

Beauty is not the very straightforward thing that Dalit girls have previously known it to be; it has many layers, which are very complex to deal with at various levels. This brings us to responses of male students who already have prejudices about Dalit girls as being ‘loose’. Forget about others who never acknowledge your existence, men from your own community also don’t acknowledge you. Many try to convince you that it doesn’t suit you, your ‘agency’ is totally denied by labelling the change as a result of stupid strategies to become westernised, all the time by calling you an example of ‘fractured modernity’.

The big question before Dalit girls then is: how to do well academically in such circumstances? Most of the time is spent in trying to get some space of their own in the classroom and in friends’ circles (if they have any). Dalit girl students who were toppers at the college level become almost zero at the university level because of these complex structures, continuous demoralisation and so much energy diverted away from academic activity simply to gain acceptance of peers. However, one cannot deny the possibility of some democratic spaces being created as a result of the conscious efforts on university campuses, where such mainstream ideas of beauty can be contested. But there are very few.