Many of us are familiar with the statistics from 2014 on OkCupid, which showed that Black women were considered the least romantically desirable group (Asian men were rated lowest by single women). In India, there is no survey yet to explain a similar situation for Dalit women. What love means to us and how our social locations play a role in determining the success of our relationships have, so far, been questions of limited interest.
My dating experiences began when I was in college. I met my first romantic partner around the same time I was beginning to identify as a feminist. This was also when I was coming to terms with my Dalit identity—something I was sure would never threaten the relationship. I believed love conquered everything, just like on celluloid. If a Latina maid in Manhattan could find her happily ever after with a White senatorial candidate in a Hollywood movie, and an uppercaste Shekhar could find everlasting love with a Muslim Shaila Banu in the Mani Ratnam-directed Bollywood movie, surely I could too?
I couldn't have been farther from the truth. After many relationships, I've now come to realise that not only can caste play a role in determining the success of one's romantic pursuit, it can also shape one's competence, desirability, and confidence within a relationship. And love, contrary to what we have been taught, may not be the most sacred of all feelings, insulated from the world and pure in its expression; it is a choice that we make based on who we are and where we come from.
Our attraction for another is a function of our social locations, defined by caste, class, race, and religion. Our decision in choosing a companion is dependent on how reluctant we are to challenge status quos. My then-partner chose to break up with me because his parents couldn't accept the fact that I was Dalit. Another very pointedly told me that his family might be able to accept me if I didn't behave like a Dalit.
My own experiences with romantic love, my family's experiences in arranging a marriage for me and my sibling, and my observations on how my fellow Dalit sisters have been treated and perceived in the context of both traditional marriages and modern-day dating, has taught me that loving and being loved, in all its glorified beauty, is a matter of privilege.
Dating in India Today
Most of my women friends whom I grew up with in school and college got into arranged marriages, and very few dated to find their partners. Those that are unmarried today are still looking at arranged marriage as a potential route. My family has also been asked to try that. But given that we had very limited access to social networks, we put up profiles on both elite and not-so-elite web portals, specifying everything but our caste. Proposals came from different types of families and men, both from India and overseas, with one question in common: What is your caste?
In 2014, the first direct estimate of inter-caste marriage in India said that only five per cent of Indians married a person from a different caste. If India is embracing modernity and a new breed of Indo-Anglians are emerging, is it possible that the remaining ninety-five per cent is not using just the arranged marriage method to find intra-caste partners? Is it possible that Indians are looking for intra-caste prospects via modern dating methods as well?
Over the past few years, there have been a slew of stories on how apps like Tinder are revolutionizing the matrimonial space in India, where matches are supposedly made not on the basis of caste. While it is true that these apps do not ask for one's caste (like matrimonial websites do), these don't necessarily ensure that a legal or a social inter-caste union will take place. Apps like Tinder are only casting a wider net to have access to people from different castes, thereby creating an illusion of breaking barriers. Offline, people still legitimize their unions based on caste markers, such as surnames, localities, dialects, parents' jobs, religion, economic status, political and pop culture idols, food choices, ideology, and skin colour.
Feminist Discourse on Modern Dating
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 behavioral 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.
Excerpted from the essay 'Swipe Me left, I'm Dalit' by Christina Dhanaraj, from the book Love is Not a Word: The Culture and Politics of Desire, edited by Debotri Dhar. Speaking Tiger Books.