DAY SEVEN: Systemic Stereotypes: Violence against Bonda tribal women

Nancy Yadav writes about stereotypes embedded in myth and colonial history that oppress the Bonda tribal women in India.

Nancy Yadav

Featured Image: Bonda women at Bhubaneswar (Odisha) Tribal Fair (author’s own)

“We have the same colour of blood as others, why are we kept behind and exploited?”

Mini (Bonda Adivasi/Tribal advocate

 The right to live free from violence is one of the most fundamental human rights; the Universal Declaration of Human rights internationally recognised documents advocate these rights. In India ‘Article 21 of the Constitution of India, constitutes a basic human right, the right to life with dignity sans violence. The introduction of “Report no.230 on Atrocities and Crimes Against Women and Children” mentions that women’s “status witnessed a sharp decline with pervasive gender stereotypes in society.” The situation of tribal women remains perilous, the reports observe that in the rural, tribal areas the communities accept atrocities as a way of life in the absence of organisational assistance. As per the National Crime Records Bureau records, which are documenting crime against women from Scheduled Tribes (ST) specifically since 2015, we see 1137 cases of rape being recorded against ST women in 2020 as against 885 intent to outrage the modesty of ST women. The situation of Bonda women is no different. 

Odisha’s “Remo” Bonda tribe is one of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) among 13 PVTGs in Odisha and 75 PVTGs in India. The PVTGs categorisation, which was supposed to provide special rights, itself creates a divide discriminating the tribal women based on their ethnicity, gender and class in the larger Indian society.

Mini’s experience of hostility is one such example which indicates the systemic violence faced by tribal women in Odisha.  Mini is a Bonda woman from Malkangiri district Odisha (whom the researcher met and conversed with during her fieldwork), every year she puts up her stall, selling agricultural produce at Adivasi Mela Ground (annual tribal fair) at Bhubaneshwar.

When asked about her community, Mini says that she does not like the attitude of people from the plains; her community is often perceived as “violent” and women are seen as photographic objects because of the customary attire. “Only for mere 10 rupees tourists take pictures and advertise our community women as ‘exotic’ Indians and “naked” Indian tribes”. As someone actively engaging in social work in her region, Mini is determined to shatter the stereotyped identity of her community and challenge the idea that by “giving alms to the tribals they (the non-tribals) cannot exploit and restrict them from developing.”  

Mini’s reaction is against a long-standing historical violence and injustice done to the Bonda community. The narratives and knowledge formation of the community have its roots in colonial ethnography which stereotyped the community as “primitive” and “savage.” The “strange dress” and appearance of Bonda women, violent and homicidal ways of men, and inaccessibility of their villages, in the colonial narratives remained the primary information, recognising the Bonda tribe as “classical savage type.”

Historically, Bonda women keep their head shaved, covering it with a fillet of palmyra, olive shells or scarlet seeds. They cover their upper body with brass collars of different patterns of brass chains and beadwork necklaces of different colours. Their lower body is covered with a small ‘ringa’ skirt tied by a waistband attached in front. Though Bonda women cover themselves with a lot of ornaments and necklaces, their semi-naked appearance to others is determined to form the identity of the community as “naked tribe.”

In the Bonda community, all significant roles of gender-based identities are attached to myth and rituals, and the customary attire is part of myth which constrains Bonda women from wearing any other cloth except” ringa” (loin cloth). Gregory Staley (2008) in his essay published in the anthology Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought, articulates that investigating myth is a constructive feminist exercise.

Myth becomes a tool through which women can escape the world which men have constructed for them through myth, can attack it, can begin their voyage of discovery’

Gregory Staley (2008:219)

Revisiting the Bonda myth explains the origins of the prohibition of clothing among the Bonda community.

The shaven heads and half-clad bodies are the result of a curse given by goddess Sita, as a penalty for laughing at the bathing goddess. It is necessary to note that the goddess Sita is a Hindu goddess, and the curse version is most widespread among ‘outsiders’–the non Bondas, most likely the non-tribals. The second myth explains that the scrap of cloth is given as a gift by Mahaprabhu (Bonda deity). There is no offence and no curse, the skirt is a gift of Mahaprabhu’s mercy, as an advance on complete nudity. In the third myth, a Bonda woman who has removed her clothes to husk grain on a warm day, jumps below the earth to avoid being seen in the nude by her brother; he catches her by the hair, and it comes in his hand. The woman thus stayed hairless and with only a tiny rug she was holding to wipe off her sweat.

These curse myths are the most narrated myths explaining Bonda women’s attire. The significant issue with the myth is that it propagates the stereotyped identity of the Bonda community as “naked,’ and ‘uncivilised”.

The myths reinforce the violent gendered stereotypes of cursed nudity, and  propagate and reinforce colonial stereotypes that justified the documentation of the tribe as ‘uncivilised’.  Thus, caught between tradition and coloniality, the Bonda women, ironically, face violence both within and outside the community.

Over time, wearing sarees (as many women in some parts of Eastern and Southern India do) and shedding the traditional clothing and nudity led to the Bonda women being outcast from within the community. On the other hand, appearing in customary clothing in weekly Onukadelli markets, Bonda women are objectified through a sexual gaze and ‘voyeuristic tribal tourism’ and “human safaris.” 

In sum, the myth and recorded history of the Bonda community intersect with violence against Bonda women making them stereotyped and reduced to bodily descriptions. But Bonda women like Mini brings a ray of hope, interrogating negative stereotypes that they are born into and repositioning their identity.   

Researcher with Bonda women at Mudulipada (Odisha)

Author’s bio:

Nancy Yadav is PhD candidate in Gender Studies at the School of Human Studies at Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi.