Sivakami, first Dalit woman to become a novelist #goodnews


Sivakami travelled to foreign countries on government missions and brought back varied experiences

  • Image Credit: Courtesy: Sivakami
  • Palanimuthu Sivakami, IAS officer and novelist

New Delhi: The first Dalit (lower caste) woman to become a novelist, the titles of Palanimuthu Sivakami’s books reveal her life and times. After her first book The Grip of Change, the recently released The Taming of Women, is all set to create waves.

An Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, her journey from Tamil Nadu took her to Tokyo to serve as regional director of the Indian Tourist Office. Sivakami travelled to foreign countries on government missions and brought back varied experiences that could be moulded the Indian way.

The Indian posting gave her the opportunity to meet women and Dalits, which led to social issues becoming Sivakami’s primary concern and avocation. Without making any tall claims, the firebrand leader made a space for herself and began contributing towards fulfilling her social goals. Passionate about social irregularities and injustices, she motivated parents living in small towns and villages to provide education to their children.

Sivakami made a short film Ooodaha (Through) based on a story written by one of her friends. Set in 1995, it was selected by the National Panorama and won the President Award the same year.

She quit the administrative service after 29 years in 2008 and joined politics a year later, contesting the Lok Sabha polls from Kanyakumari representing the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

In 2009, she founded her own political party, Samuga Samathuva Padai. Sivakami informs, “Based on the principles of Dalit educationist and political leader Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, it is a forum for social equality.”

She speaks to Gulf News in an exclusive interview.


GULF NEWS: How factual was your first book The Grip of Change that created a stir by taking on patriarchy in the Dalit movement?

SIVAKAMI: At times, The Grip of Change appears too real to be called a fiction. But then it is merely a perspective of realities perceived by (the protagonist) a 17-year-old girl. The unedited Dalit patriarchy, as portrayed in my novel, created a furore to the extent that the male world refused to recognise it as a Dalit novel. But to their surprise and discomfort, the book has been doing the rounds in the same tag.


What made you send one of your works anonymously to see it published?

It was my first novel Pazhayana Kazhithalum, original Tamil version of The Grip of Change, published in 1986. That was because I feared the publishers would market the IAS following my name rather than my work.


Born in a Dalit family, over the years, do you see any change vis-à-vis attitude of the society towards the community?

I do see changes, but they are slow and miniscule and not to anyone’s satisfaction. Discrimination changes its colour according to modern times.


Could you cite some recent examples regarding discrimination against the Dalits?

For instance, due budget share is not allocated to the Dalits and whatever is assigned, is not fully spent. But the state governments are not bothered about monitoring such irregularities. Often, cases of atrocities against Dalits are not registered and few accused are punished.

Another phenomenon appeared recently. The media grew suspicious when a batch of 20 people from Tamil Nadu got through the Public Services examinations from Ambedkar Colony in Arur Dharmapuri district. People recommended a probe to find out whether the question paper had been leaked! In contrast, a couple of years ago, when more than 30 persons had passed the same examination from Ayakudi, near Palani, the village was honoured for its achievement.


At a time when people did not believe in educating girls, how did you manage to study and become an IAS officer?

My father was elected to the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu in the first general elections in 1952. He was keen to educate his children. Moreover, I was the topper of my school in academics. I sustained the interest till I got through the civil services examination and even thereafter.


Did you find any kind of disparity while at work?

Yes, quite a lot. That is the subject matter of my next novel in Tamil and it will be published shortly. Though a fiction, it is based on my experiences.


What was the reason for quitting the administrative service and joining politics in 2008?

If I mention that I quit because of the caste discrimination at the higher level, people would argue that not everyone facing discrimination quits the IAS. Hence, I would say that I quit of my own sweet will that was thrust upon me! Additionally, I had prepared myself for this exit at least for a decade. Other factors apart, I was guided by a strong desire to work for the poor and the disadvantaged.


Contesting on the BSP ticket, what made you leave Mayawati’s party having a Dalit entity?

Mayawati’s party was non-existent in Tamil Nadu. And as a follower of Dr Ambedkar and BSP’s founder Kanshiram, I cherished a dream of strengthening the party in Tamil Nadu. But later I found that there was no such agenda for Tamil Nadu by the BSP.


A news report on you said —‘To be a Dalit is one thing to be a feminist is another. In your case, you are a Dalit-feminist and everyone wants to disown you.’ Could you clarify this point?

I do not subscribe to the theory of disownment. It is a kind of an acknowledgement to someone who is daring and different. I have worked in my own way for people’s rights. When I started the Dalit Land Right Movement in 2004, many thought it was a worthless attempt. For sometime it remained a lone battle, but after a few years others began talking about it.

Later, in 2008, with the massive support of women I organised a huge public conference on Women and Politics, which was attended by nearly 250,000 women. Subsequently, in 2009, the political party Samuga Samatuva Padai was launched. So, the question of being disowned does not arise.


Saudi Arabia’s Rosa Parks helps women speak up #womenrights

The rights movement may not have achieved much in terms of legislative reform, but it has given women a platform to voice their views
    • By Mona Kareem | Special to Gulf News
    • Published: 20:00 August 3, 2012

Since the 1990s, Saudi women have been demanding the right to drive cars, travel alone, and abolish the male guardianship system. The struggle was limited to certain women from less conservative communities. After the Arab Spring, with the driving campaign, Saudi women were able to make their demands heard through a larger number of people involved and with the help of media exposure; western and Arab. It was believed that they were leading what can be called a ‘Saudi spring’.

Right after the Egyptian uprising, Saudi women worked online under the name ‘Saudi Women Revolution’ and although they started with bigger demands that sought radical changes to their status, gradually, the mild voices among them were able to dominate because they were less controversial and ‘more reasonable’, as some claim. Women were arrested and this was the easiest way to create leaders that exclusively were able to define the movement and its direction. A good example of that is Manal Al Sharif.

What has the movement achieved so far? Nothing when it comes to legislation, but a lot when it comes to having more women getting involved and speaking up. King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz promised that in the coming municipal elections (that have no set date) women would be able to contest and vote. The decision did not state whether those who wished to run for election needed permission from their male guardians.

Once again, women fall under the power of men and stay second class citizens. Eventually, this results in having a women’s rights movement that is limited to families who are less conservative and more educated; a movement that unintentionally excludes many women of low-class, and of conservative families.

The Saudi women’s movement has generated criticism. Several young voices have realised that the movement cannot contribute much if it stays limited to basic demands led by working women from the middle class. Some called on women to join male activists who are calling for reform in the kingdom, believing that the process of a true democracy is expected to grant women their rights and cannot be limited to changes within the political system.

Last year, people were drawing comparisons between historical movements and the movement by the Saudi women. A good example is the comparison with the civil rights movement in the US and how Al Sharif could be the Rosa Parks of Saudi Arabia. What such examples neglected, however, is how African-American women were fighting not only for their rights as women, but first, as people of colour experiencing racism.

Right now, many African-American women have been active, highlighting different issues related to violations of their rights as women and as women of colour. However, at that time, there was no possible way, no open space, for them to fight separately and work in a feminist movement not concerned with the rights of black people.

Lessons to learn

Global historical examples, especially western, might not be the closest to the Saudi example considering the cultural, social, political, and time differences. I recall how many Saudi women used to say that they were not aiming ‘too high’ for the time-being, but were asking to have the same rights that their Gulf counterparts had achieved, and specifically what Kuwaiti women had achieved.

The latter have always been socially involved, enjoying a greater level of freedom. They were able to get their political rights in 2005 and won four seats in the parliament three years ago.

In the Kuwaiti example, if there is a lesson to learn, it is that female activists were fighting for their rights without neglecting the calls for political reform. For decades, during elections, women were somehow involved in campaigns of candidates in an attempt to have those representatives support their demands. During the Iraqi invasion, women were part of the resistance and several of them were killed. Within academia, business, arts, media, and governmental work, Kuwaiti women were also present. It was a matter of time before Kuwaiti women attained their political rights after being able to co-exist in society and in the political struggle for a better democracy.

Having Saudi women drive cars was a good way to get attention and make a point. There was a line and it was crossed but there are other lines that need to be crossed in order to keep the women’s movement alive. If this movement decides not to get politically involved and surrenders to its icons to control it, then we will eventually witness the death of another Saudi women’s movement that was not able to comprehend the situation and work within the current political context.


Mona Kareem is a Kuwait-born blogger, writer and poet based in New York.


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