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Caste System / A protest to mark the first anniversary of the Delhi gang rape, in New Delhi, 2013. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The Caste System is the Biggest Hindrance to the Feminist Movement in India

It is important for us to recognize those who have been victims of the caste system and strive to uplift them.

By Jhilam Gangopadhyay

TW: mentions of sexual assault in this article

The majority of India is populated by Hindus and within the fold of Hinduism—considered to be one of the oldest religions of the world—exists an at least 2000-year-old caste system unique to the Indian subcontinent. The caste system is one of social stratification, like class, which also acts as a tool to systematically oppress women.

The caste system hierarchically divides people into four broad categories based on their occupation: the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, built on the degree of “purity” and “pollution.” Basically, it forms a structure where the ‘‘higher’’ castes are ‘‘purer’’ and enjoy various privileges, honour and status in society. As one goes down the hierarchy, the level of “purity” decreases and that of “pollution” increases.

We have the Brahmins at the top, who were traditionally the priestly caste and sole bearers of education. They are also the highest-ranking caste, even in cases where they do not enjoy financial superiority. Next, we have the Kshatriyas, who were supposed to be the rulers and warriors—they might be lower than the Brahmins in the caste hierarchy but enjoy most privileges of being an upper caste. Third are the Vaishyas, the traders and artisans, followed by the Shudras, the labourers and service providers.

But of course, it doesn’t end here. There is a community of people who are considered to be so low that they aren’t even allowed to be a part of the system because of the level of “pollution” associated with their jobs, like manual scavenging and latrine-cleaning. They are known as the ‘‘untouchables’’ because they were prohibited from interacting with or physically contacting the upper castes and their touch was considered ‘‘defiling’’. They stand outside the caste system as the outcasts. Today, they are referred to as the Dalits or Scheduled Castes.


How does the caste system work?

The caste system was initially dependent on occupational heredity. If you were born into a family of blacksmiths—a low ranking profession—you could not change your profession or aspire to climb up the social ladder even if you had the desire or ability to. You had to take up the profession no matter what and continue performing it and your children had to do the same.

There were strict rules that were followed by each caste: one of the most important rules was to avoid inter-mingling within castes to prevent the upper caste from being “polluted” by the lower castes. This was ensured by segregation of spaces (for instance, a particular area in a village could only be inhabited by one caste), distinctive dress codes and special dietary preferences.

Of course urbanisation, industrialisation, modernisation, constitutional awareness and laws introduced by the country have loosened most of the caste rules but parts persist in newer forms. While the functioning of the caste system varies and differs from region to region, its roots remain entrenched in society.

Marriage Endogamy

The preservation of the caste system is done, in part, through what is called marriage endogamy: one must marry within one’s caste to maintain the ‘‘purity’’ of the caste. However, if an upper-caste man marries a lower-caste woman, this is known as hypergamy. This is because a woman gains in caste when she marries up and the husband’s caste becomes her caste. However, an upper-caste woman isn’t allowed to marry a lower-caste man, which is known as hypogamy. This is because the honour of a caste is closely tied to the honour of its women. If the woman marries below her caste, she “pollutes” not only herself but her entire family and caste, thus bringing them to shame.

The prevailing idea is that being sexually involved with a low-caste woman only temporarily “pollutes” a man, one ritual purificatory process and he’s good to go. But for a woman? God, no. Being sexually involved with a man permanently “pollutes” her.

It is this idea that gives upper-caste men the power to regularly sexually assault lower-caste women, even today. One of the most rampant ways for a man to show his dominance and authority is to strip the honour of those ‘‘below’’ him, and as the honour of one’s caste is tied to its women, it is these women who are often assaulted or gang-raped to show one’s superiority. Upper-caste women did not work or step out of their homes (they weren’t allowed to). Low-caste women do not have that option—they have to work because the majority of them come from extremely poor households. Thus, a woman working in the field is seen to be of loose morals and sexually accessible by an upper-caste man. Low-caste men are therefore shamed for their inability to ‘‘control’’ and ‘‘protect their’’ women.

There is a misconception that lower-caste women are “better off” because at least they have financial autonomy, but this isn’t true at all. Even today, they barely have access to education and remain restricted to very menial jobs. It is these women who are the most vulnerable to sex trafficking. Beyond the lack of upward mobility, financial autonomy doesn’t buy honour in a world where nothing matters more than caste.


Hypergamy and the Extreme Oppression of Women

Arranged Marriage: In most families in India, the parents decide who their children will marry and arrange the marriage of their children with a ‘‘suitable’’ bride or groom. Usually, ‘‘suitable’’ is just another word for belonging to the ‘‘right’’ caste. This practice is related to the terrifying phenomenon of honour killing, where a relative or woman is killed for having brought dishonour to the family. The usual victims are those who have married outside their caste or religion.

Dowry: Often the families of lower-caste women wish to upgrade their status in society by marrying them to upper-caste men. In exchange for the status given by the man’s family, the lower-caste woman’s family must offer compensation in the form of dowry: cash, jewelry, furniture and even houses.

The practice of dowry has led to what is called Kulin Brahminism in the state of Bengal: Kulin Brahmins are the highest-ranking caste in Bengal and they would practice intense polyandry. Basically, they would marry several women, including low-caste women whose parents would be desperate to upgrade their status and charge huge dowries. A single Kulin Brahmin man could have six wives, live in the house of each wife for about two months per year and enjoy being pampered by their in-laws. While he is in the house of one wife, the other wives would have no access to him and this system leads to the deification of man and degradation of  women. Which is why a husband is often known as ‘‘swami’’, another word for god.

This has further implications in the daily life a woman. As the husband is worshipped by the wife, she is expected to undertake fasts and rituals in order to ensure a healthy and long life for him and even required to touch his feet (a gesture usually done by young to pay their respect to the elder), which is admittance to the fact that she is indeed subordinate to him. Also, traditionally, widows in India have been meted out unimaginable ill-treatment: she is considered to be ‘‘inauspicious’’ and the reason behind her husband’s death. Ideally, a woman’s death must precede her husband’s.

Even today, the system of dowry is rampant in India despite the presence of laws that prohibit it. It has led to hundreds of deaths where the wife has been murdered by her in-laws when her family hasn’t been able to meet the ever-increasing demands by the man’s family. It is no longer about caste: even if two families belong to the same caste, it has become essential for the woman’s family to pay dowry to the man’s. The notion is that a woman may never gain the same status as a man of the same caste.


The dowry entails exorbitant amounts and degrades women. This is why even today, in many families, a son is preferred to a girl child, and sex-determination is illegal in India because many families choose to abort female fetuses. Similarly, education in poorer families is not given to girls who are seen as a financial burden.

Of course, upper-caste women and lower-caste women experience caste differently. While both are the victims of its oppression, lower-caste women and Dalits are doubly disadvantaged through a system we call Brahminical Patriarchy, which denigrates women through an upper-caste ideology and the notions of purity associated with it. It is time to take into account the harsh reality of the historically marginalised and subaltern women and create opportunities which enable them to move up the social ladder. More than the abolishing of the caste system, it is the stigma in the minds of the people that needs to be curbed. And while the end goal is definitely a complete annihilation of caste, we are still not there yet. It is important for us to recognize those who have been victims of the caste system and strive to uplift them. Even this basic acknowledgement is missing among upper-caste people who think their low status in society is somehow divinely ordained. All our efforts at gender equality would mean nothing if only privileged women benefit from them and the system of oppression continues.

Jhilam Gangopadhyay currently lives in New Delhi and is in her second year of college. She is most often seen with a book tucked under her arm, either rushing to class or to fight the patriarchy. She usually writes on issues of caste and gender and the way in which they are practised in India.

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