New Delhi: For centuries, they have struggled under the twin yokes of caste and male oppression. Now, Dalit women have decided to speak up.

About 250 Dalit women activists, writers, students, leaders and professionals will speak out about their lives at University of Pune’s Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre next month at a unique two-day conference.

The idea is to let Dalit women express themselves without any intervention by upper castes or men from their own community. Challenging what sociologist Sharmila Rege (in her 1998 piece ‘A Dalit Feminist Standpoint’ published in Seminar magazine) called “masculinization of Dalithood and savarnization of womanhood," this group, which includes Dalit women from various professions, will meet in an attempt to reclaim their public space to speak up.

The event, organized by the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch and Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, will be held on 19-20 December, and will try creating a “space that is free for expression, learning and growing within the collective."

The double oppression of Dalit women, the fault-lines between Dalit solidarity and feminism, and the unacknowledged role of Dalit women in the larger Dalit movement are subjects that have long interested Dalit commentators.

Experts say that although Dalit women have a history of participation in the movements led by Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar, after his death, the movement became dominated by men and the process of their marginalization continues till today. It did not help that the mainstream feminist movement largely ignored the caste dimension of their struggle.

“We are not seeking sensitivity from non-Dalit wo/men and Dalit men, but only expressing our genuine need to able to freely weave our diverse voices for our future, without any mediation," organizers said on their website.

Speaking slots and lead roles are all reserved for Dalit women and only those who have consistently worked on caste will be invited to “listen and learn". The event comes amid growing caste-based violence.

“Dalit women will finally be speaking without anyone intervening on their behalf," said Sudha Pai, ex-professor at Centre for Political Studies. “Normally it’s journalists, academics writing on them, or government bringing out reports about their lives, but this time it is they themselves who will be speaking out. Giving them the voice in the kind of times we are living in is very important."

“The atrocities against Dalit women have been rising and there is so much conflict and competition between Dalits, both men and women, and other castes—for space, for jobs, upward mobility," she added.

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