By Deepa Sreenivas
Sharmila Rege’s passing has left us with a sense of irrevocable loss. She died all too young, but left behind an enduring vision for all those dream of a just and egalitarian society.
In many ways, through her pedagogy and activism, Rege demonstrated that academia could indeed be a place full of transformative possibilities. Rege, who described herself as a Phule- Ambedkarite feminist, chaired the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre at the Pune University. An established academic in sociology, it was Sharmila’s investment in the critical transactions between caste and gender that led her to women’s studies. Her work offers an engaged critique of the the disciplinary structures of sociology, dominated by the entrenched dichotomies between knowledge and experience, public and private, social and political. For her, a sociology of gender would entail more than ‘reading the absence of women’ and would need to grapple with the differences among women, locating them within their particular caste and community histories.
Sharmila’s entry into women’s studies may be read as the search for a space where an alternative pedagogy could be fashioned, and where gender and caste could be studied in an intrinsically political relationship. Ironically, this is a space that is increasingly taken up by a statist-reformist agenda – measuring the success or failure of dis-privileged women to take advantage of governmental schemes, and studying the struggles of middle class women’s transition into modernity.
By all accounts, Sharmila and her colleagues at the Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre re-made this terrain, infusing every classroom and every text with the spirit of feminist pedagogy. This is evident from the fact that a large number of theoretical texts were translated from English to Marathi so as to make them accessible to students from the vernacular medium. There was a conscious endeavour to address the structural disparities of the classroom, encouraging students from different communities to question and transform ‘given’ knowledge with their experiences and perspectives.
Several wonderful books, such as Isn’t this plate Indian: Dalit Memories and Histories about Food, were the result of research projects undertaken by students. I refer to this particular book because I had heard Sharmila speak about it at a public event with such enthusiasm. At that moment, sitting among the audience, the horizon of women’s studies suddenly widened – if only one looked at the critical ways in which gender and caste permeated classrooms, institutions, as also our everyday lives. As an academic from within the domain, I had been struggling with certain discontents of my own, and here was someone who spoke to me and gestured in an exciting direction.
In her groundbreaking Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonios, Rege had foregrounded the evocations of Ambedkar within ‘dalit counterpublics’ in Maharashtra and the ways in which dalit women, in their literature and music, stitched together questions of conjugality with community centred struggles for justice and dignity. In Against the Madness of Manu: B. R. Ambedkar’s Writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy, published just a few months before her death, she unpacks certain key writings of Ambedkar to firmly situate gendered oppression at the heart of brahmanical patriarchy and a caste order maintained through endogamy. Rege’s final work may be read as an endeavour to recover Ambedkar as a feminist icon so that future struggles may be nurtured and re-imagined within the most fundamentally democratic practice of maithri or social fellowship.
At a panel discussion held in Sharmila Rege’s honour at the University of Hyderabad, Dalit feminist Swathi Margaret spoke of an extraordinary quality that marked Sharmila’s life and work – while she offered the most engaged critique of upper caste feminism’s complicity with a brahamanical worldview, as an upper caste woman herself, she never got frozen into guilt. Instead she practiced an active, critical listening, not allowing voices from margins to be appropriated into familiar structures. I can only say that we will honour her memory best by walking the same path, however difficult that may be.
[Deepa Sreenivas is a reader at the Center for Women’s Studies, University of Hyderabad. She obtained her doctorate at EFLU. She has previously published articles in Himal Southasian, Feminist Theory, Childhood: A Global Journal of Child Research. Her book chapter was published by Routledge. She is also the Series Editor of Different Tales, devoted to developing stories by writers from marginalized communities. The author could be reached at: email@example.com]
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