Dalit Feminist Voices on Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Justice – Economic and Political Weekly

Transnational commercial surrogacy and the outsourcing of reproductive labour to women of the global South is arguably the most controversial practice in an expanding market in body parts and reproductive labour. The central role of India in this market represents a particularly challenging example, given the historical symbiosis between reproductive policies and population control in the country. For roughly a decade, India was a hub for commercial surrogacy and biocrossings, facilitated through the global assemblages of a liberalised capitalist economy (Bharadwaj 2008). Within this transnational fertility circuit, bodies of underprivileged Indian women, formerly seen as waste and their reproduction as something to be controlled by the post-independence Indian state and policymakers in the first world, were transformed into sites of profit generation within the reproductive industry of the neo-liberal Indian state (Rao 2010).

While previous research on surrogacy has addressed the stratified reproduction (Colen 1995) of Indian women in terms of class and economic status (Pande 2014; Rudappa 2015; Vora 2015; Deomampo 2016), the question of caste has received little attention (Madge 2015). Responding to the lack of research on assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) and caste, the aim of this article is to explore the significance of this intersection toARTsin general and commercial surrogacy and egg donation in particular. We draw on in-depth interviews with Dalit feminists whose perspectives onARTsare uncharted.1Our analysis explicates the need to connect these issues with broader questions of social justice that we theorise through the framework ofreproductive justice. This understanding challenges dominant articulations ofARTscentred onreproductive rights.

Trends and Transitions in Surrogacy in India

A world-leading destination for medical tourism (Pande 2011; Deomampo 2016), surrogacy was legalised in India in 2002 and benefited from the active promotion by the Indian government (Rudrappa 2015; Deompampo 2016). As Amrita Pande (2014: 13) notes, [c]linics in India (...), not only operate without state interference but often benefit from explicit state support for clinics catering to medical and reproductive travelers. In 2012, a study conducted by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) estimated the fertility industry to $2 billion, with 600 clinics registered with the government, and another 400 under the official radar (Bhatia 2012). Nearly 10,000 foreign clients, of which 30% were single parents or identified as queer, travelled to India for reproductive procedures during that year (Rudrappa 2015: 39). Low costs, the availability of highly qualified English-speaking medical doctors, women willing to work as surrogates, and the lack of legal regulation surrounding surrogacy arrangements are factors that contributed to Indias flourishing fertility industry.

In 2005, the National Guidelines for the Accreditation, Supervision and Regulation ofARTClinics in India,developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), were published (ICMR2005). However, through cases such asBaby Manji Yamada v Union of India(2008) and the Jan Balaz case in 2008, insufficient guidelines regarding citizenship of children born through surrogacy or parentage were brought to public attention (Saravanan 2018). Responding to the growing pressure on the Indian government from stakeholders within theARTindustry to provide a legal framework, theICMRand theMoHFWoutlined the Draft Assisted Reproductive Technologies (Regulation) Bill and Rules in 2008, which was revised in 2010 and 2013. Both the 2008 and 2010 versions of the draft were criticised for harbouring a bias towards the private sector and for promoting the interests of the industry, while failing to address the vulnerability of surrogatemothers (Sama 2012). The 2013 draft restricted the issuing of surrogacy visas to married couples, thus excluding single and gay parents. As a consequence, parts of the business moved to Nepal. However, since Nepal banned its female citizens from being hired as surrogates, but permitted foreign women, Indian and Bangladeshi women were taken to Nepal. A number of highly mediatised cases contributed to the present Indian regulation of surrogacy. One pertains to the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, when the Israeli government arranged to bring back Israeli gay couples and their babies from Kathmandu while the surrogate mothers were left to fend for themselves. Thailand, another hub for transnational surrogacy arrangements, banned commercial surrogacy for foreigners in 2015, in the aftermath of the Baby Gammy case and the Mitsutoki Shigeta case in 2014.

In 2016, the Indian Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill was approved by the union cabinet,2which banned all commercial surrogacy, and prohibited foreigners from accessing surrogacy in the country, while permitting altruistic surrogacy for married couples with documented infertility, provided they use a close relative for the procedure. In August 2019, a revised version of the 2016 bill was passed by the Lok Sabha. Arguably, the intent of this bill was to prevent the oppression embedded in the idea of rent a womb, while simultaneously strengthening cultural nationalism. This was evident in the statements made by the external affairs minister, the late Sushma Swaraj, who claimed that the bill hadan Indian ethos, aligned with our [Hindu] values (Hindu2016). Nonetheless, within the ambit of economic globalisation and Prime Minister Narendra Modis nationalist ideology, Indian womens responsibilities remain bracketed as reproducersshifting marginally from (re)producers for the global bioeconomies (within the logics of outsourcing) to procreators for the Indian nation (as mothers of the nation).

Reproductive Rights vs Reproductive Justice

Western feminist discourses on reproductive rights have been centred around values, such as choice and bodily autonomy and have primarily concerned the right to access birth control. This discourse has been criticised by feminists of colour for not addressing the ways in which socio-economic contexts and geopolitical locations shape womens reproductive realities (Twine 2015). They draw attention to how childbearing by privileged women is encouraged and bolstered through the use of advanced technological interventions, while poor women of colour are subject to public policy measures that include invasive and abusive medical procedures, or forced child removal that prohibitmotherhood (Roberts 1996: 944).

Challenging Western liberal notions of reproductive rights, the concept of reproductive justice was coined in the early 1990s. Merging reproductive rights with social justice, this concept addresses how race- and class-based histories of population control, sterilisation abuse, high-risk contraception, poverty, and the effects of environmental pollution on fertility and maternal health shaped the reproductive lives of the third world (as well as women of colour in the first world) (Bailey 2011: 727; Ross and Solinger 2017; Mohapatra 2012). It decentres abortion and contraception to emphasise how issues, such as incarceration, immigration, racism, housing, and adoption policies affect biological and social reproduction. The political dimension of reproduction is visible in current geopolitical conflicts, exemplified by the implementation of the United States (US) zero-tolerance policy at the Mexican border in 2018, and the coerced abortion and sterilisation of Muslim Uyghurss, Kazakhs and other minority groups of women by the Chinese state in 2020 (Briggs 2012).

A reproductive justice perspective is particularly relevant in the Indian setting given the symbiosis between reproductive politics, eugenics and neo-Malthusian ideologies, which have shaped the ideas of over-population during the early 20th century. Neo-Malthusian concerns were transformed into upper-caste anxieties about the lower castes. Upper-class neo-Malthusian agenda interweaved with the upper-caste agenda of Brahminical Hinduism to reduce women to merely reproductive bodies requiring male control, in a reimbrication of patriarchy (Anandhi 1998). In the initial debates on birth control, the seamless welding of Hindu with upper castes, and the conflation of upper-caste practices and norms as Hindu was achieved (Rao 2004: 3602). Central arguments concerned the reproductive excesses of the lower castes and religious minorities, in particular Muslims. Anandhi points out that several political groups articulated the opposition between desexualised reproductive bodies as the ideal norm of respectable female sexuality and sexual bodies as representing immoral and disreputable sexuality (Anandhi 1998: 145). From an international perspective, growing populations in China and India were increasingly seen as geopolitical threats and third world womens sexual behaviour was specifically targeted (Wilson 2018: 92; Briggs 2002: 117).

The post-independence Indian state and policymakers in World WarIhave seen the bodies of poor women in India as waste and their reproduction as something to be controlled (Rao 2010; Wilson 2018). Negative eugenics has been aggressively practised in India and targeted towards vulnerable communities. The widespread use and abuse of sterilisation is a case in point, as exemplified by the Chhattisgarh sterilisation scandal in 2014 (Ghose 2018). With the exception of a short period of forced mass vasectomies between 1975 and 1977, female sterilisation has been the main instrument of Indias population policies and has been the most common form of contraception available since the late 1970s(Deomampo 2016: 40). We wish to draw attention to the way in which what was formerly considered as waste is transformed into sites of profit generation within the reproductive industry of the neo-liberal Indian state.

Colonial Legacies of the Indian Reproductive Industry

In 2011, Alison Bailey argued for a reproductive justice approach to Indian surrogacy, as a response to what she described as an ethnographic turn, replacing earlier studies focused on the normative and ethical dimensions of surrogacy arrangements: either claiming moral legitimacy by using a liberal discourse, which emphasises womens right to decide over their own bodies, or a Marxist understanding, which perceives surrogacy as exploitation and the ultimate human commodification. By focusing on womens agency and lived experiences, it avoids the Eurocentric fallacy of previous scholarshipthe taken for granted of a particular set of moral concernsthat runs the risk of distorting the realities of women in the global South:

The single-pointed focus on choice occidentalises Indian surrogacy work: it makes it difficult to raise questions about the kind of life a woman has to lead to make this work count as a good choice. It obscures the injustice behind these choices: the reality that, for many women, contract pregnancy is one of the few routes to attaining basic social goods such as housing, food, clean water, education and medical care. (Bailey 2011: 722)

Bailey sees Amrita Pandes work as emblematic of this ethnographic turn, as it evades the discursive colonialism of early writings on surrogacy by giving priority to the surrogate mothers own narratives (Mohanty 2003). Pande observes that these women explicitly reject the category of choice, speaking instead ofmajboori(a compulsion) and loyalty with their families. Her ethnographic accounts add a complexity that makes it impossible to see surrogacy as either a win-win situation or one that transforms surrogate mothers into passive victims of exploitation.

However, Bailey is critical of what she perceives as a lack of a normative perspective; a weak moral absenteeism, noting that [i]nterviews are oddly de-politicised, as if documenting surrogacy workers agency and then properly contextualising their choices is sufficient (Bailey 2011: 72526). Departing from the narratives of the surrogate mothers enables the scholar to address the problematics articulated by the women engaging in these practices (Bailey 2011). Reproductive justice, she argues, provides a theoretical framework capable of encompassing both the surrogates local moral worlds and reflections on the morality of a practice that builds on the labour of women living under abject conditions. Such a perspective is attentive to the acute intersectionality at work in practices ofARTs.

Jyotsna Agnihotri Gupta (2006) responds to a similar understanding of intersectionality and inequality when she argues for a transnational feminist response toARTs. As their impact varies significantly between different groups of women, Gupta perceivesARTsas a testing ground for transnational feminism. Her proposal is a framework based on human dignity: a moral framework that values individuals as ends in themselves and not as tools [and] which encompass(es) individual rights claims but go(es) beyond the narrow focus of individualism and autonomy for the protection of womens self-respect and human dignity (Gupta 2006: 35).

Guptas proposal is critically assessed by Michal Nahman (2008), who agrees with the need for a common feminist stance onARTs, but rejects turning to a universal notion of dignity and the human rights discourse that this notion is based on. Modelled on Western conceptions of the human, dignity was used as a tool during colonialism and capitalism to dehumanise and instrumentalise colonised people. Instead, Nahman foregrounds the logic of the marketplace by recognising how one may attempt to gain a sense of dignity within global capitalism by doing precisely what will perpetuate the system, buying and selling (Nahman 2008: 76). Nahmans approach includes a critical recognition of neo-liberal capitalisms capacity to assimilate and live off the very attempts aimed at resisting it. She advocates a shift of focus to the neo-liberal global forces that position women in situations where they feel a need to commodify their bodies at all. This includes being attentive to how certain bodies are perceived as potential biological material: [W]ho is positioned asmore appropriateto sell a bit of their body (Nahman 2008: 77).

Kalindi Voras (2008, 2009, 2012) work offers the kind of account that Nahman argues for. Whilst Black feminists (Roberts 1996; Twine 2015; Weinbaum 2019) have drawn attention to how the current market in reproductive labour is prefigured by theUSslave economy, Vora draws parallels between surrogacy and Indian indentured labour that replaced slave labour after 1807, when the trade in slaves was abolished within the British Empire (Vora 2009; Lowe 2015). She argues that the colonial past offers the conditions of possibility for the present international division of reproductive labour, that is, why some bodies and not others are seen as the possible sources of commodification.

Others note connections between surrogacy and colonialism tangentially, through Indias history of reproductive politics, leading scholars like Bailey (2011) to argue for a reproductive justice approach. Pande (2014) and Sharmila Rudrappa (2015) address Indias history of population control and coercive reproductive policies targeted against marginalised communities. While Pande acknowledges the paradox of an aggressively anti-natalist state becoming a global hub forARTprocedures, Rudrappa explicitly rejects the relevance of a reproductive rights approach to address the distinct stratifications of Indian society. Instead, she argues for a reproductive justice framework that accounts for the endemic social, political and economic inequalities among different communities which shape individuals abilities to access a good life (Rudrappa 2015: 170).

Intersectionality of Dalit Feminism

The assertions by Dalit feminists in the 1990shave been part of a discourse of dissent to both mainstream womens movements and male-dominated Dalit movement. Sharmila Rege (2018) argues that middle class, upper-caste womens experience, or alternatively Dalit male experience became universalised, resulting in a masculinisation of dalithood and a savarnisation of womanhood (Rege 1998, 2018: 12). Akin to these articulations, one of our research participants, an activist from Bengaluru, stated:

One of the things that I have been doing a lot is critiquing Indian feminists: there is a lack of connect [ion] with real life issues of marginalised women. But the fact is that they are the ones who set the agenda and basically define the issues which feminists talk about in India.

Dalit feminism implies an interrogation of privilege and discrimination embedded within the Ambedkarian notion of Brahminical patriarchy, a specific modality of patriarchy governed by a set of discriminatory levels constituting a hierarchical organisation of society based on caste, which is quite unique to the Indian subcontinent (Arya and Rathore 2020: 8). This graded inequality determines the location of all individuals according to caste and gender, with upper-caste men and lower-caste women at the beginning and end of the spectrum. The Ambedkarian understanding of caste positions endogamy as its grounding principle, which makes the control of womens sexuality central to caste ideology (Rege 1998: 165; Velayudhan 2018).

While both Dalit women and caste Hindu women are disempowered by patriarchal practices, Dalit and lower caste women are more prone to violence as they face oppression at three levels (i) caste, (ii) class, and (iii) gender (Dutt 2019; Moon 2000; Malik 1999), that is, the triple burden of economic marginalisation (low wage labourers working for upper-caste landowners as most of the land is owned by upper caste or upwardly mobile castes), caste discrimination, and gender subordination. Our research participants would commonly refer to this intersectionality of oppression. Thus, engaging with a Dalit feminist perspective demonstrates the importance of intersectionality for grasping gender inequality in India. However, prominent feminists, such as Nivedita Menon oppose its relevance to Indian feminism, which Dalit feminists have perceived as a reluctance on the part of mainstream feminists to acknowledge and address their own caste privilege (Menon 2020).

Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Theory

A Dalit feminist standpoint, as elaborated by Rege (2018) and Kanchana Mahadevan (2020), has significant parallels to other feminist standpoint theories (Collins 2009; Harding 2004; Haraway 1988). Standpoint theory designates the epistemological shift that occurs when marginalised communities gain public voice, and foregrounds the concept of experience. The location of the subject affects the experience and thus the knowledge that it generates. From a Dalit feminist perspective, experience is the origin of knowledge, and like standpoint theories, power is seen as integral to epistemology. The failure of dominant groups to critically interrogate their advantaged situation makes their social position a disadvantaged one for generating knowledge. As stated by one of our research participants, a Dalit journalist: we need to articulate womens experience and theory from the perspective of the marginalised sections, which mainstream feminists clearly are not doing. Indian feminists lack an insight or an experience (...) the entire perspective that we would bring to the table. In the same vein, a social activist among our research participants describes the importance of having worked in the slums: my feminist theory sprung from there you know, and my understanding of caste, class, gender came from the slums that I work [in]. What is emphasised in these narratives is the importance of lived experience, a kind of knowledge that has been omitted from traditional epistemologies, which spans over a register that includes feelings and more elusive elements, what Linda Martn Alcoff (1996, 2008: 294) describes as textures.

Grounding knowledge in experience is democratic and provides an alternative to normative understandings. However, this does not imply a belief in unmediated authentic experience. Rather than a subject merely registering the imprint of reality which then qualifies as knowledge, experience is regarded as a dialectical process of collective articulation by persons belonging to conflicting social locations. As Alcoff elaborates

the oppressed do not have an epistemic privilege over understanding oppression generally; they are not more likely, for example, to know the causes of their oppression. However they are more likely to know the lived reality of the oppression, its emotional costs, its subtler manifestations, what it is like to live it. (Alcoff 2008: 294)

Claiming ones experience as the foundation of knowledge and theory is particularly audacious in the Indian context, where a divide has been instituted between theory (theoretical Brahmins) and experience (empirical shudras) (Patil 2020: 219; Guru 2020). As Cynthia Stephens (2009) suggests, Dalit feminist theoretical claim is a conscious effort to break the existing stereotype of Dalit women as mainly activists (doers) who have little to contribute (as thinkers) to ideological discourses in society, politics, governance, ethics, economics, and development.

There is a risk of subsuming Dalit feminism within dominant feminist discourse through a mere acknowledgement of difference, and making room for different voices from non-hegemonic locations within mainstream feminism (Harding 2008: 158). If that was sufficient, caste discrimination would be a concern only for Dalit and other lower-caste women, just as feminists of colour reject seeing race as something only they should attend to. Instead, seriously engaging with Dalit feminist perspectives entails challenging the dominant paradigm of thought. The goal is not difference in itself, but the relations of power that it legitimates. In Reges words, the aim is to address the social relations that convert difference into oppression (Rege 1998: 157). Here, there are significant parallels to Black feminist standpoint theory which challenges what counts as knowledge. Constructing new knowledge is crucial for empowerment because it provides alternatives to the way things are supposed to be (Collins 2009: 286). Reges idea of oppositional Dalit feminist pedagogies resonates with Black feminist thought when she describes that the importance of Dalit womens narratives lies in the potential to destabilise received truths and locate debates in the complexities and contradictions of historical life (Rege 1998: 133).

Importantly, standpoint theorys rethinking of experience is not an excluding gesture. The we designated by Dalit feminism is an acquired community. Although it may not be possible to speak as or for Dalit women, it is possible to reinvent oneself as a Dalit feminist, which entails rejecting the Brahminical, middle-class outlook that structures mainstream Indian feminism, and become sensitive to the specific disempowerment created by the intersection of caste, class and gender. Furthermore, as Gopal Guru (2020) points out, the subject of a Dalit feminist standpoint is not homogenous but multiple, heterogeneous, and sometimes even contradictory.

Caste, Sexuality and Reproductive Labour

Gender and caste are inseparable in both their material and cultural dimensions. Our analysis demonstrates how these intersections and interactions shape the choices Dalit women make in terms of labour and sexuality, not the least in the area of sexual labour. A characteristic way that our research participants approached commercial surrogacy was through the lens of sex work. Prabha Kotiswaran (2011) speaks of two international agendas having shaped perceptions on sex work in India during the last decades: the abolitionist movement and the antiHIV/AIDSprevention efforts. The abolitionist movement has gained force from the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UNGIFT) launched in 2007. Through media representations, such as the Oscar-winning documentaryBorn into Brothelsdirected by Zana Briski and shot in 2004, set in Kolkatas red-light districts, third world enslaved sex workers have become pre-eminent examples of human trafficking (Kotiswaran 2011: 4). The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA) conflates trafficking and sex work, which defines the discursive space for conversations on sex work in India.

Sex work is commonly referred to as forced labour or sexual slavery by our research participants; coercion and not choice is emphasised, and there are those among our participants that adhered to the abolitionist view, as the journalist who spoke of all commodification as problematic per se:anything that commercialises () the body () has to be seriously questioned. However, rather than radical feminist understandings of sex work, most of our participants highlighted the socio-economic conditions that make women turn to sex work as a livelihood. Entering the surrogacy industry is described as shaped by the same forces. As one of the Dalit academics and social activists with the experience of working with women in prostitution explained:

[R]ural women likeX, sex work, forced by the husband, by the family and also absence of work at the agricultural sector. All this made them ... it is not theirchoice. I feel no women will get into this kind of selling sex, also selling their wombs for surrogacy. And the ... the whole economic conditions forces them to get into this. And I blame the society which has the purityimpurity concept in everyones mind which is also the sexual purity. Where they dont bother about the purityimpurity and they have the sexuality aspect. The most exploited women are the Dalit women []. Surrogacy is another thing that we cannot accept []. One woman in our area she received`30,000 only.

The same academic/social activist said she knew of rural women forced into sex work as a result of cuts in educational budgets, which makes unaffordable private schooling the only remaining option. Lack of jobs and collapsing farm prices trap families who seek ways out through self-exploitation. In combating commercial surrogacy and sex workmodern kinds of slaverythe rejuvenation of the agricultural sector is key, she argues.

The traditional hierarchical political economy of labour on which caste reproduces itself and Dalit demands for dignity of life and labour have to some extent been addressed by constitutional provisions. The government has tried to aid the empowerment of marginalised communities, especially women, Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) through large anti-poverty alleviation programmes, such as the one under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). But, the same social activist suggests that the government measures are not always sufficient:

they are getting very poor wages, now this uh ... hundred days work ...MGNREGAwork. It also comes once in a while, and then one job for one family, not all the family members are ... and uh how do you expect Dalit women to depend on this.

More specifically addressing reproductive issues, she reflects on the increasing medicalisation of childbirth and the rapid growth inARTclinics in her city. She also brings up the ways in which exposure to pollution and other environmental issues disproportionately affect marginalised communities, not the least in their reproductive lives: The implication of chemical fertilisers on reproductive health systems of women, they keep on talking about. So I feel somewhere that is also an issue. In bringing unequal access to essential resources, such as clean water to the conversation onARTs, she demonstrates an understanding of reproductive justice as intimately connected to social justice. Ultimately, she argues that sex work and surrogacy is a question of the economic realities that Dalit women are confronted with: We are questioning the failure of (the) economic system. So you know like, what is happening to agriculture? What is happening to the economics?

Surrogacy and sex work are seen as parallel social phenomena not only in relation to how social locations shape womens choice of becoming surrogate mothers, but also the conditions in which they find themselves once within the industry. As one of the Dalit academics/social activists stated:

[F]or instance this`30,000 paid to a Dalit woman may not be the case for the non-Dalit woman who may bargain better. With her colour, with her sort of you know social capital. She may bargain, she may have a choice of going into surrogacy and bargaining for better allowance, better kind of conditions of gestation, etc. That may not exist for the Dalit.

The narratives suggest that economic and other exploitative conditions of Dalit surrogates within the reproductive industry parallels the vulnerability of Dalits working in the sex industry. Furthermore, many of our participants referred to the historical exploitation of Dalit womens sexuality, and the practices of devadasis andjoginisas contributing to the coercive forces surrounding womens labour. As stated by one of the journalists:

We have experienced sexual slavery for ... for simply centuries, whereas mainstream feminists havent had this experience. So they should hardly be the ones, you know, wanting to talk about it. I feel we as a society have failed if women have to sell their vaginas or rent their wombs to survive. You see the question is not of reproductive freedom or choice.Where is the choice when they have no choice?.[our emphasis]

One of the academics specified, Dalit devadasis have nothing to do with the art of dancing at all, they never had temple inheritance () Dalit devadasis were performing a kind of temple prostitution. Following this historical pattern, lower caste women constitute the majority of sex workers in contemporary India. This academic drew attention to the embeddedness of prostitution in caste and class, which, as she points out, was referred to as slavery by B R Ambedkar in 1936.

These intersecting levels of gender, caste and class reveal inherent contradictions in the practices of untouchability, as Aloysius et al (2020: 177) notice,

no more apparent than in dominant castes physical or sexual violence against Dalit women, where an undisputed claim is assumed [on] their bodies. Moreover, the touch of the womens agricultural labour in the dominant castes fields and their domestic work in the dominant castes houses are interpreted as essential services that preclude the strict practice of untouchability.

Detailing the vulnerability of Dalit women working in upper-caste families, one of our academic research participants spoke about the endemic problem of sexual harassment:[T]here is a caste link there where the man of the house and the women of the house believe in some way that this woman is sexually available. As Suruchi Thapar-Bjrkert (2006: 782) argues, the ideological construction of purity/pollution are conveniently forgotten when pure upper caste men are engaged in sexual encounters with impure lower caste women. This is not to deny patriarchal inequalities in Dalit households. In fact, as one of our academic participants said, a lot of Dalit women in my own circles are treated very objectively, like objects in their own relationships. For example, in their families, the man is only educated because of the poverty. So all those things disable the women to talk about the next level of you know rights. So the first thing is to survive. To get food on her table, the second thing is to educate herself if possible, the third thing is to enter a healthy relationship where she is not you know insecure or unsafe.

What Dalit women are capable of pursuing as labour depends on these limiting circumstances of income-generation. One of the journalist participants explains that a framework of choice is uncommon among sex workers from Dalit and lower-caste communities: this is stigmatised, this is despised and yet they do it, exposed to constant violence. One of the academic participants elaborates on the notions of respect and dignity introduced by the journalist:

They dont have the choice. Precisely the kind of structural condition which Dalit women are embedded, the question is not to ask about the agency of Dalit women or to talk about the rhetoric of sex work being dignified, to convert it into a dignified work does not arise given the fact that its an extremely embedded kind of condition in which Dalit women go into sex work () So its not a question of you know sex work being a taboo, here the question [is] of who is performing the work? And this is where Dalit women are saying that inevitably all said and done despite all this kind of talk about giving dignity and self-respect, eventually it is our women who are performing it.

The research participants emphasis on the particular vulnerability of Dalit women and the exposure to violence that a life in prostitution often entails, articulates with the Dalit movements understanding of prostitution as caste exploitation: caste privilege sexually exploits women of lower castes and destroys their self-respect thereby preserving the unequal power relations of a caste-based society (Tambe 2008). While economic desperation and social marginalisation is a recurrent reason for entering into sex work and surrogacy, our research participants simultaneously emphasised how this counteracts the equally important struggle for dignity, as both sex work and surrogacy are stigmatised occupations in the Indian context. As reiterated by one of the social activists: money is not a matter, recognition in the society is the matter. Dignity! ... they are not recognised even by the family. The acute need for survival and the equally pressing struggle for respect become irreconcilable realities; seizing economic opportunity simultaneously enhances social vulnerability.

Dismissing the framework of choice and insisting on the importance of structural conditions resonate with debates on sexuality and labour in which Dalit feminists have become a divergent voice. The legislative ban on bar dancing, critiqued by mainstream feminists as moral policing and an attack on womens right to exercise agency, and stances on sex work, are cases in point (Makhija 2010). Partly as a de-exceptionalising and destigmatising move, and with reference to the first national survey of sex work in India,3sex work has been conceptualised by dominant feminists through the liberal framework of bodily autonomy, rights and choice (Menon 2020), whereas reports by the National Federation of Dalit Women (NFDW) and National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR)emphasising that a majority of sex workers come from lower caste backgroundspoint to the caste-ordained linkage between sexuality and labour. Thus, the social position of the women choosing sex work needs to be acknowledged, in addition to their economic status (Rege 1998: 44).

Brahminisation of Surrogacy

Female reproductive biology is a main generative site in the growing global biomarkets, including emerging stem cell industries that are dependent on high volumes of human embryos, oocytes, fetal tissue and umbilical cord blood (Cooper and Waldby 2008, 2014). The gaining ascendancy of oocyte economies in the aftermath of the new regulatory framework on surrogacy was an important revelation during the course of our interviews. The commercialisation of ova, in particular, surfaced when our research participants addressedLGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexed, and agender) communities acute lack of livelihood choices. Several of our research participants spoke of an expanding bio-economy in which lesbians and transgender persons sell their eggs and sperms as a mode of survival. As one of our research participants detailed, transmen and lesbians have very difficult time continuing their education because of family, they run away from home or because they have tough lives. So they are outside, they need money. They are running you know, running scared.

Our research participants give us reason to believe that these practices are inflected by gender, class and caste dynamics, as is surrogacy. One of the journalists shared the following account:

[T]he doctors I have discussed with at that time have told me [] they want fair looking babies, they want intelligent babies so they openly ask for Brahmin eggs. Some doctors have told me that people openly ask for some Brahmin eggs, or Brahmin sperm. So for uterus they are hiring lower caste people ... women They wont opt [for] their eggs () but for eggs and sperm they only seek upper caste [donors].

Brahmin eggs and Brahmin sperm are juxtaposed with the womb of the lower-caste woman, whose defiled and impure sexuality makes their own eggs undesirable. As earlier studies suggest, intended parents would ideally prefer a higher caste or Brahmin surrogate, with the expectation that they would produce healthy and good-looking babies (Dhar 2012). Nonetheless, both these cases reinstate the ideology of purity/pollution, whereby the institutionalised inequalities of the Brahminical system are fortified. We suggest that these reproductive practices assist in building caste capital, which confers benefits comparable to those accrued from social capital. As embodied in relations among persons (Coleman 1988: 118), social capital is productive and enables the achievement of certain ends while conferring power and profit to its holders (Skeggs 1998)in this case upper-caste women and menwhose caste capital protect them from economic and social vulnerability. We conceptualise this assemblage of practices as the Brahminisation of Surrogacy; creating new roles for lower caste women while confining them within the frame of non-valuable breeders for the embryos of valuable women (Corea 1985: 276). Significantly, such practices articulate with earlier Indian eugenic discourses and more recent Hindu nationalist arguments on caste supremacy, which construct oppressed castes as unfit to reproduce.

In conclusion, we reinstate the central purpose of our article which was to analyse caste as a significant parameter for understandingARTs, in particular surrogacy and egg donation. By incorporating Dalit feminist perspectives, that have been marginalised in mainstream debates, we demonstrate the relevance of bringing caste and social justice centre stage, and how this is crucial for forging new conversations.


1 Semi-structured qualitative in-depth qualitative interviews were conducted by the third author with 11 research participants, all of whom identified as women, who work in areas of reproductive healthas activists, journalists and academicsand who are from the Dalit caste. The respondents are based in Bengaluru (Karnataka) and Chennai (Tamil Nadu).Karnataka and Tamil Nadu share a trajectory of strong Dalit movements, and more importantly, Dalit womens movements in which our research participants are involved. Not all the participants identified as primarily Dalits. Some of them, especially the academics, emphasised that they were feminists who were also Dalits. The interviews were conducted in locations suggested by the participants: in their offices, homes and in cafes.

2 The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016. The Ministry of Health and Welfare, Government of India, New Delhi, Bill No 257, https://dhr.gov.in/document/acts-circulars/surrogacy-regulation-bill-2016.

3 The survey was published in 2012, and indicates that approximately 71% of female sex-workers have chosen sex-work ahead of other occupations (www.plri.org).


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Dalit Feminist Voices on Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Justice - Economic and Political Weekly

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