By Ponnarasu K*
Shalin Maria Lawrence, a renowned writer and social activist, has astonishingly transformed herself from a consumerist to a community activist. In an interaction with me, mixed with personal questions about various struggles she faced as a Dalit Christian woman, she talked about her social work and impact and state of the country.
On asking about how her social career started, she remembered her favourite poem from Tagore, “When your mind is without fear, your head is held high”. She says freedom translates to fearlessness and dignity, but a woman constantly lives in fear and is denied of her dignity.
She had a rosy school life which she calls it a rainbow land, where all things nice were taught to her but that didn’t prepare her for the world that was waiting. Her struggle with the society began at her job, where discrimination waited for her. She recollects how her colleagues satirically appreciated her attitude, work, attire, and confidence by saying that all of them reflected a bold upper caste white woman and how she was too good for the Dalit women standards.
She then confronted the evil face of marital domestic violence and when she tried to come out of it, the societal taboos of going through a divorce, (despite it being a harmful relationship) chased her. She went past all this and focused on her career. She got back to a happy life with new friends through a painstakingly long process and began to see the consumerist side of life, partying away and enjoying her newfound freedom.
Cue 2015 Chennai Floods. While it affected the whole city, like any other natural calamity, it affected the poor Dalits living in the riverbank slums of North Madras the most. She saw how it affected the women dearly as they had to spends weeks in camps without access to proper toilets and sanitation. She started to work with them and other transgender organisations.
She then met Kathir, the founder of Evidence group from Madurai who are renowned for their work towards Dalit and Tribal welfare, in the Chennai Book Fair and gets from him, his book “Saathi Desathin Sambal Paravai” which deals with the unfair treatment and miserable lives Dalits go through across the country. Moved by the book, she began to read Ambedkar and Periyar.
She confronted multiple questions in her head. In her own words she puts them as “Mera Bharat mahan hai or keval ek aisi vaisi desh hai”, “Why I was given the Bible to read, not the Constitution”, “Why the society is not ready to provide me my equality, justice, liberty and fraternity that is enshrined in the preamble of the constitution”.
Along with the Evidence group, She then travelled to Dharavi, tribal areas of Tamil Nadu and met oppressed women, who faced discrimination of multiple levels- caste, class, and gender. During our interview, she summarises her travel experiences as follows. “How far you have to travel to get water, how difficult is it to get to a school, how easy it is live in the society, how easy/difficult it is to get a burial place when you die, all depends on caste. A woman faces discrimination even before birth and even after her death. It begins with feeding saffron to pregnant moms to get a daughter who is fairer, female infanticides, acid attacks, rapes and goes on even after death with victim shaming” .
Having gone through both caste and gender-based issues herself, She realised that she needs to talk and that being a path breaker, being good with people and being good at public speaking will bear more fruit on ground than on her corporate resume.
She then participated in women empowerment movements among oppressed communities. She feels surviving all these elements of society, that threatens her security and dignity, makes women strong by character and an achiever by default and all we need to do is to give them a voice and connect women to the right resources.
She got her own column “4th generation feminism” in a famous Tamil weekly “Kumudham”. She started to participate in TV and academic debates on political issues. She authored various articles for tabloid news journals. She wrote multiple books including “Vadachennaikari” (Capturing the life of a North Madras Woman). She works with the evidence group who conduct field events, campaigns and programs related to Dalit rights. The group also brings out caste violences with evidence to the media attention from all over Tamil Nadu and enables the victims to get legal ssupport. They also work towards mobilisation of support through social media, print media interventions, conferences, and awareness programs, etc.
They pioneer in doing case research about Dalit issues that can help in policy making. Their research works have brought out factual evidence about discriminatory practises like 2-tumbler system in rural eateries (86% eateries had 2-tumbler system and 91% shops did not allow Dalits to have a seat), separate burial grounds (98% of surveyed villages) and preferring Dalit workers for menial jobs, etc.
She calls herself a proud Dalit women writer and says that the prefix she uses before ‘writer’ explains the struggles she had to face to reach there. She doesn’t side with any political parties as she feels vote bank politics requires a lot of compromise and dilution in principles, but she realises their important role in this movement.
She calls out the differences and hierarchies within Dalit and Christian communities and even among other minorities like Muslims and insists on the need to see past the differences and pose a common front in the fight. She condemns those who says, “who sees caste nowadays” and urges everyone to listen to the oppressed to get the real picture.
To the question about the existence of freedom of speech, but limited existence of freedom ‘after’ speech, she says that the shooting of Gauri Lankesh has shaken the strength of the writer’s community and has instilled a fear in them. But she says the need for dissenting voices in a democracy are stronger than the fear and activists will continue to ask the tough questions and not stop till answers are found.
*PGP Student from the Indian Institute of Management- Ahmedabad. Based on interaction with Shalin Maria Lawrence