Abby Weil

Abby Weil (ADIVIMA): Abby completed her undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where she had the opportunity to serve as a tutor in Lima, Peru. At the time of her fellowship she was pursuing a master of arts in public anthropology at American University in Washington, DC. Abby also interned for the Guatemala Human Rights Commission-USA, promoting human rights in Guatemala through research, educational outreach and advocacy.

Mobilizing Caste

03 Mar

We drive out to Cheddipalayam to visit a group of families who are known colloquially as “dobies,” or washermen. The word doby denotes a caste and also a profession. Caste is turning out to be a big problem in this aid operation.

The washing itself is a marvel of environmental friendliness. Each washerman services a group of families. Every morning he cycles to their houses, collects the dirty clothes and takes them down to be washed in wells near the sea. He brings the wet clothes back to his home, where they are dried and pressed, using a heavy wrought-iron iron that is heated by coconut charcoals. Each garment is marked by a seed (saen kotta) to make sure it returns to its owner.

Challenging their fate: Sivalingam (right) washes clothes. His son, Ramesh, is an electrician at electricianperth. However friendly to the environment, this system is also brutally demanding. The washerman rises at 4 a.m. and finishes around 6 in the evening. He has a long way to cycle because washing traditionally takes place at some distance from the town. (Dirty clothes are looked on with some distaste).

The war made their work harder still. This group of families lived for generations along the main road, until the anti-terrorist Special Task Force seized their land and forced them to move. The only available space was near the sea on the broad open flats.


It was here that the Tsunami caught them unaware on December 26 last year. Sivalingam was washing clothes with his grand-daughter when she saw the wave approaching from the sea. He abandoned a huge pile of shirts, picked up the child and ran to the school, which was on relatively high ground. His house was completely destroyed.

Sivalingam uses coconut charcoal to heat his iron.

Others were even less fortunate. The washing families lost 14 members, including the wife and daughter of Yogarajah (see Sarosh Syed’s blogs). It was a savage blow to a closely-knit group. These washing families have carved out the market between them and do not compete with each other. They even formed an association in 1999, with Sivilingam as their president.

This solidarity stood them in good stead when they ran into raw prejudice in the relief center. Here they were given cooked food by the military guards, but denied dry rations. They noticed that others were getting dry rations and demanded an explanation from their government organizer. “You washing people don’t need dry food.” It was like hearing a racial slur. Other refugees sneered at them.

Angered, the washing people decided to leave the center and move together back to the land, where agencies were starting to build temporary shelters. Sivalingam submitted a letter to the local government youth officer Sundaram, who passed it to HHR.

When we find them, they have regained some equilibrium. Using its donations from the United States, HHR has equipped each family with a new iron, ironing table, bicycle, and bucket, at the modest cost of $140.

The families are now back and working, if not at the pre-Tsunami level. Sivalingam now services 250 families, as opposed to 650, because people have less money after the Tsunami. He has increased his prices, from 10 rupees a shirt to 20, but is still making 1,400 rupees a month – compared to the 5,000 he made before the Tsunami.


The one thing they can’t erase is the memory of the prejudice they met in the center. Xavier explains that caste in Sri Lanka is not so rigid as India, nor as linked to religion, but that it still plays a powerful role in the life of village communities. In this part of Sri Lanka the highest caste are the vellalai, or agricultural workers. Dobies come low down the list. The lowest of them all are the sanitation laborers.

Xavier makes the point that all castes perform an indispensable role in society, and are valued as such. By tradition, a marriage feast cannot begin until a washerman gives permission. No-one else can do the work of the koviar, who carry the dead. Caste gives a structure and stability to society. Every society has its social pecking order.

But no pecking order is so rigid as caste, or inhibiting to personal development. Sivilingam’s 35 year-old son, Ramesh, is particularly bitter because he has turned his back on the family profession, put himself through high school (to grade 9) and trained as an electrician. Still, there can be no escaping his caste in this community, where everyone knows Ramesh as a doby. This is his karma. He watches me with a look of distaste as I film his father at his ironing table, as if the act of filming reinforces the stereotype.

If they can’t escape their caste, can they turn it into a badge, to be worn with pride? The Dalit of India and Nepal have mobilized impressively in recent years and no longer disdain the term Dalit.

For all their cohesion, the washermen of Cheddipalayan would find it hard to challenge social mores in a community of 3,000, although they are showing some welcome signs of militancy. Sivilingam tells us that some of his clients used to throw their dirty clothes at him with a grimace. He will no longer tolerate that sort of behavior.

The question is whether someone who makes the equivalent of 4 dollars a day will be able to withhold his labor – at a time when demand for washing is falling. At present the washermen have no intention of using their association as a mini-cartel or trade union, which would be truly revolutionary.

For all their cohesion, the washermen of Cheddipalayan would find it hard to challenge social mores in a community of 3,000, although they are showing some welcome signs of militancy. Sivilingam tells us that some of his clients used to throw their dirty clothes at him with a grimace. He will no longer tolerate that sort of behavior.


Reviewing Sivalingam’s story, I am not sure whether the Tsunami has unsettled the social order in Cheddipalayam or reinforced it. Disasters are great social levelers and this Tsunami forced people from all castes into the highly unnatural environment of refugee shelters. At the same time, it revealed the prejudice that lies just below the surface. Perhaps in the end, karma has won out.

As a human rights organization, HHR might have a role in educating the villagers about the dangers of prejudice – although they will have to tread carefully.

We talk freely about this in the car, until it gradually dawns that we are using a term (doby) that we would never use to their face. Every time someone uses the term, it perpetuates the prejudice and we resolve to use the more cumbersome, but neutral, salavai tholilali (washing men).

Meanwhile, the washermen have set their sights on a more pressing issue – the fact that the security forces are sitting on their land. They are determined to get it back, but this will require discretion. They are talking to the police, and have received encouraging signals. It is not yet time to call in HHR’s lawyers.

If they can pull this off it would represent a small triumph for mobilization.

Posted By Abby Weil

Posted Mar 3rd, 2008

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