Women's emancipation & the caste system

Power of patriarchy

Print edition : March 13, 2020

Students at a dowry prohibition awareness rally in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu in January 2018. Photo: N. Rajesh

Schoolchildren at an awareness campaign to stop child marriage in Bikaner in Rajasthan. A file photograph. Photo: PTI

The struggle for women’s emancipation cannot be separated from the fight against the hierarchical caste system which both perpetuates and strengthens Brahminical patriarchy in India.

The yearly celebration of Women’s Day and the ritualistic glorification and worship of women notwithstanding, there is an urgent need for a critical appraisal of the status of women in India. Such an appraisal as a mere academic exercise will not generate much value unless it is politically charged to fight for women’s emancipation.

When the chief executive officer of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, held up a placard that read “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy” while meeting a group of feminists during a visit to India in November 2018, it created a huge uproar in the media, forcing him to apologise. Brahminical/Brahminism has been narrowly equated with the Brahmin caste, and even so-called “liberals” began to attack the Twitter CEO for being party to this casteist slogan that targeted one particular community, excluding all others.

Other than the small academic circle, the words “Brahminism” and “Brahminical” are widely used in political circles while fighting for the rights of marginalised communities. The usage clearly signifies the attitude of dominant sections that obstruct the rights of marginalised communities rather than indicate/target any particular caste. Understanding the real meaning of Brahminical patriarchy, which cannot be narrowly confined to a particular caste, can offer a holistic perspective in understanding the status of women in India.

Patriarchy generally refers to the hierarchical power relation in which men are dominant and women are subordinate. The subordination of women is explicit in many ways, in both private and public spheres, where women are denied rights and access to many things that are easily available to men. Patriarchy as a concept/tool helps in the critical understanding of the status of women in any society. According to the eminent gender historian Gerda Lerner, patriarchy manifests and institutionalises the domination of men over women and children within the family, and extends its influence over the public sphere in a society. In spite of patriarchy having common features across societies, it acts differently in every society, combining with other dominant structures. In India, this nexus between patriarchy and the caste system has been found to be historically exploitative and mutually feeding off each other.

Caste in India

Caste divisions in India dictate one’s occupation, dietary habits, rituals, marriage and other interactions with members of other castes. Members of the upper castes enjoy more wealth and opportunities, while those of the lower castes perform menial jobs. According to a recent study jointly conducted by Savitribai Phule Pune University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, 41 per cent of the country’s total wealth is owned by upper-caste Hindus. The “untouchables” are in a permanent state of “impurity” and forced to do menial jobs such as toilet cleaning and garbage removal.

Caste, being an ascriptive status without any possibility for social mobility, has four defining features, namely, hereditary specialisation, hierarchical relations, repulsion with other castes to avoid any alliances, and endogamy.

Endogamy, the patriarchal practice of marrying within one’s caste, has long been a functional component in maintaining the purity and hierarchical exclusiveness of the caste system. Endogamy controls the reproductive power of women through strict rules and regulations regarding marriage and sexual behaviour. As the sexuality of women is the access point for any intervention in destabilising the caste system, these norms continue to play a significant role in Indian society. Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s seminal research paper titled “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development”, presented at a seminar on anthropology at Columbia University in 1916, remains a pertinent source of understanding contemporary Brahminical patriarchy even today. In his paper, Ambedkar identified endogamy as a peculiar characteristic of caste which hierarchically separates the population, with strict punishment for any intermixing. Widowhood and sati were the mechanisms to address the problem of surplus women, while sanyas (asceticism) and child marriage were prescribed to handle the problem of surplus men. But since asceticism could potentially reduce the strength of the productive force, child marriage was encouraged. These practices, which acted as a bulwark against men and women marrying outside the caste system, first evolved in the Brahmin community and were later practised by other communities. Such strict rules were seen as necessary to protect the purity of the caste system for them to enjoy the associated religious, political and economic rights.

The caste system also allowed anuloma (hypergamy), where a man from an upper caste could marry a woman from a lower caste, as it did not disturb patriliny (tracing descent through the father). However, pratiloma (hypogamy), or the practice of a woman from an upper caste marrying a man from a lower caste, was strictly opposed as it disturbed patriliny, which is the foundation of patriarchal domination. Even in contemporary times, we witness cases of honour killing largely in pratiloma marriages. Moreover, other discriminatory patriarchal norms such as virginity and virilocality (the practice of a married woman staying in her husband’s home) were imposed to control the sexuality of women and protect the caste system through endogamy. Such institutionalised norms not only controlled women’s sexuality but also degraded her position within the family by denying her all opportunities for self-development. Further, these norms were extended at the societal level to render women inferior to men.

Ambedkar, in his writings, identified Brahminism as the negation of the spirit of liberty, equality and fraternity. While the Brahmins as a community may have initially evolved these patriarchal practices, it was later followed by all other communities to maintain their religious, political and economic dominance. Thus, Brahminism is identified with the system of graded equality that denies the rights of others and exploits them, which is applicable to most of the dominant communities in contemporary times. Brahminical patriarchy is the conceptual tool for understanding the discrimination of women in Indian society rather than targeting any particular community.

Inter-caste marriages

The strength of the caste system is found in the marriage system in Indian society, where marriages within the caste are still a dominant phenomenon. In spite of many social reform movements, inter-caste marriages are limited in Indian society. Arranged marriages signify how the sexuality of women is controlled and directed by patriarchal forces through endogamy to maintain the purity of the caste system.

According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) III (2005-06), only 10 per cent of marriages in India are inter-caste. Of these inter-caste marriages, only 4.97 per cent are pratiloma marriages, where upper-caste women marry lower-caste men. According to this survey, the incidence of inter-caste marriages is higher in Punjab (22.36 per cent), Meghalaya (25 per cent), Goa (26.67 per cent) and Kerala (21.35 per cent), and lower in Jammu and Kashmir (1.67 per cent), Rajasthan (2.36 per cent), Tamil Nadu (2.59 per cent), Chhattisgarh (3.38 per cent), Madhya Pradesh (3.57 per cent), and Bihar (4.60 per cent). Data from the Indian Human Development Surveyby the University of Maryland and the National Council of Applied Economic Research in 2011-12 found that only 5.4 per cent of the women surveyed in the 15-49 age group had inter-caste marriages.

A research study by Diane Coffey, Payal Hathi, Nidhi Khurana and Amit Thorat (2018) exposed the hatred against Dalits in north India. Around 60 per cent of non-Dalits in rural Rajasthan and 40 per cent in Delhi wanted a law against inter-caste marriages in order to protect endogamy and the purity of their caste. The advertisements and TV shows seeking bridegrooms clearly indicate how marriages within caste are still a dominant phenomenon in present-day India.

Killing in the name of protecting family honour for violating the norms of caste is a widespread phenomenon in India. In earlier times, such killings were rarely reported and were justified as normal by existing Brahminical patriarchal caste norms. After various women’s groups mounted pressure on the government, a separate category of “honour killing” was introduced in 2014 by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) annual report. Around 356 cases of honour killing were reported by the NCRB during 2014-16. The reporting of honour killing is minimal as most cases go unreported owing to various social factors. Even within these reported cases, only pratiloma marriages invite the ire of the caste system and result in violent action. Family honour is equated with caste honour, which controls the sexuality of women to protect the purity of the caste system.

Child marriages

Child marriages are quite rampant in India in spite of various measures taken by the government to stop them. The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, does not make child marriage void; it is only voidable if either the bride or the groom complains. Karnataka is the only State which has made child marriages void ab initio (void from the beginning) through a State amendment. The NFHS III conducted in 2005-06 recorded that 47.5 per cent of women and 32.3 per cent of men had admitted to being married before the prescribed legal age. The NFHS IV in 2015-16 showed a decline in child marriages, with 26.8 per cent of women and 20.3 per cent of men marrying before the prescribed legal age. The 2011 Census of India pointed to a staggering data of nearly 12 million children in India who were married before the age of 10, out of which 84 per cent were Hindus and 11 per cent Muslims. The girls are at a disadvantage since nearly 80 per cent of illiterate children married before the age of 10 were girls. Around 102 million girls, who constitute 30 per cent of the female population, were married before the age of 18, according to the 2011 Census, whereas in 2001 the figure was 119 million. Around 72 per cent of all Hindu girls married before 10 are from rural areas, where caste still plays a dominant role in their social life. Child marriages conducted with the intent of safeguarding endogamy norms in a caste society further trample the agency of women in exercising their sexual freedom and choice of marriage.

Dowry deaths

The practice of dowry exchange has assumed a prominent place in contemporary society even though there are enough legal provisions to curb it. The social value of women in India is measured by her marital status and her reproductive abilities. Since these values have to be realised within the caste boundaries, dowry has become a greater incentive, even for educated men, to not deviate from the practice of endogamous marriages in India.

The practice of virilocality further alienated a woman from her parental support system and made her dependent on her husband’s family, with her parents always at the disposal of her husband’s family demands. When dowry demands were not met, it often resulted in violence and even the death of the woman. The pressure of childbearing fell squarely on the woman, with the possibility of divorce or death if she failed.

The shocking aspect is that such patriarchal attitudes are institutionalised and legalised by laws in contemporary India. The Goa Civil Code gives Hindu men the right to bigamy under specific circumstances mentioned in the Codes of Usages and Customs of Gentile Hindus of Goa (if the wife fails to deliver a child by the age of 25 or if she fails to deliver a male child by the age of 30). An average of around 8,000 dowry-related deaths are reported in India every year, according to NCRB data.

Such huge numbers of deaths signify how the Brahminical patriarchy considers women a liability and a reproductive machine for the protection and reproduction of the caste system.

The patriarchal society and its norms deny the value of women even before they are born. India, in spite of glorifying women as a symbol of the nation, has one of the highest rates of female foeticide/infanticide in the world. According to the 2011 Census, the girl child population in the age group 0-6 years reduced from 78.83 million in 2001 to 75.84 million in 2011. The child sex ratio for the age group 0-6 years had also reduced over the years, from 945 in 1991 to 914 in 2011, but the overall sex ratio showed an improvement from 927 in 1991 to 940 in 2011.

‘Missing’ girls

According to a Government of India report titled “Children in India 2012—A Statistical Appraisal”, around three million girls were “missing” in 2011 as compared to 2001, which points to the rampant practice of female infanticide. The privilege given by the Brahminical patriarchy to men has forced many parents to abort female children or kill them before and after they are born.

A study by the international peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet showed that around 5,00,000 girl children died in India every year owing to sex-selective abortion. In the last 20 years, around 10 million female foetuses were aborted in India, and the practice is common even among the educated families.

In April 2018, Human Rights Watch stated, on the basis of 2016 government data, that around 94.6 per cent of the rape accused were known to the victim as they were either close family or acquaintances. In 2016, there were 106 rapes every day in India. More than 30,000 rapes were reported in India every year, whereas the non-reporting of such crimes is very high owing to the social stigma attached to them.

The Brahminical patriarchy considers rape the violation of the purity of a woman’s sexuality and imposes a social stigma on the victim rather than on the perpetrator. In fact, rape and other acts of sexual violence are one of the most under-reported crimes in India, considering the patriarchal values associated with women’s sexuality and morality. On the basis of the NFHS 2015-16 data and NCRB data, it was derived that 99.1 per cent of cases of sexual violence go unreported in India as they involve a close relative of the victim. The sexual violence against women by close relatives shows how women’s sexuality is controlled and punished accordingly by men. The patriarchal societal norms encourage men to violate women’s sexuality in both private and public spheres in order to control her.

The Brahminical patriarchy operates at every sphere in Indian society to control women and her sexuality in perpetuating the caste system and male domination. The recent protest against women entering Sabarimala even after their entry was made the law of the land by the Supreme Court of India reveals the patriarchal notions rampant in Indian society. Thus, in India, the emancipation of women cannot be separated from the fight against the hierarchical caste system, which both perpetuates and strengthens Brahminical patriarchy in India.

Dr Venkatanarayanan S. teaches at Andaman Law College, Port Blair. He was CICOPS Visiting Fellow at University of Pavia, Italy, in 2018. This paper was presented in a seminar at the University of Pavia.

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