The reinforcement of gender norms in the caste system

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Dr. S. Anandhi, a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in India, discussed class division for the lowest class, the Dalits’ and women’s rights in a talk titled, “The Pandemic of Castes.” The event was held on March 25, 2022. Photo courtesy of sociology.uconn.edu

Without the enforcement of laws, there isn’t change. The Indian caste system, a system where people are ranked based on their social class, was outlawed in 1950, but the hierarchy still exists culturally in India. S. Anandhi, a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in India, spoke about class division for the lowest class, the Dalits’ and women’s rights in a talk titled, “​​The Pandemic of Castes.”  

“All of this tells us very clearly that caste and women’s rights practices are something that has always been the backbone of maturing and sustaining the caste system in India, and unless endogamy is broken, it is impossible to break the caste system,” Anandhi said. 

The caste system was developed from the Manusmriti, an ancient Hindu law book that served as the basis of Hindu law in India, Anandhi explained. The Manusmriti determined that there was a rule of hierarchy, also known as Varna. She added that there are four levels of Varna.  

Brahmins are highly educated thinkers; for example, teachers, scholars and priests. Kshatriyas, who are known to be leaders, mostly made of warriors and rulers, are next in the hierarchy. Next, there are the Vaisyas, or  merchants, landowners and skilled workers. Following the Vaisyas are the Shudras, who are often servants and farmers. Lastly, in the lowest caste are the Dalits or untouchables. They are often forced to do menial tasks like cleaning and sweeping. 

“The mobility of castes is very very important, while the caste system may be 2,000 years old and we may say that there have been various ways that there have been intermixing, caste groups have always taken place before the implementation of Manusmriti as a legal text. So only when Manusmriti comes in that there has been a forbidding of intermixing of caste.”

Dr. S. Anandhi, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in India

Anandhi pointed out that Dalits faced gruesome violence throughout the late 20th century. Examples include the Karamchedu Massacre in 1985 and the 1996 Bathani Tola Massacre where women and children Dalits were killed. Several other massacres against the Dalits also occurred during the 1990s. According to Anandhi, though people tried to demand accountability, culprits did not get punished. From 2020 to 2021, violence against Dalits increased by 9.4%.  

“During the pandemic, Dalit children have been denied education not because of the very fact they could not access school, but because no state was willing to make provisions for accessing technology, or in the case of even providing the mid-day meal,” Anandhi said. 

On a daily basis, four Dalits die due to suffocation from cleaning septic tanks. One Dalit is assaulted every hour and many others are subject to other violence, according to Anandhi. Despite the 2013 Rehabilitation Act which banned hiring people to remove unsafe human waste, the law has not been effective and employers were not punished.  

“Therefore, we say that caste is pervasive in some sense,” Anandhi said. “Which is not only among Hindu, it’s not just an ideology practiced by the Hinduism per se. The division of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, even Buddhists does exist but the level at which they come into conflict is something that is probably not studied very well. Except for Tamil Nadu where one could see that the converted do have caste tensions, Christians have caste tensions, Sikhs have caste tensions.” 

Specifically, Dalit women are often denied public wealth and resources. The disregard for Dalit women’s rights contributes to the caste patriarchy, according to Anandhi. She added that the caste system plays a crucial factor in gender oppression in India.  

“This one particular movement I want to talk about is the Beijing international conference. It is during this international conference that Dalit women in large numbers, right at the international forum, very clearly said that our interests do not coincide with upper-caste women’s interests in contesting inequality because our experiences in inequality are embedded in caste relations.”

Dr. S. Anandhi, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in India

According to Anandhi, during the 1970s, Dalit women’s reproductive rights were limited because the government wanted to control the population of the lower caste. However, they were seen as valuable when people found out that they can be used to create a market for surrogacy pregnancies.  

“As of now, education for Dalit has meant improving the social status, not economic status,” Anandhi, said. “Many of them have been able to contest the caste hierarchy in the rural area with some education. The younger generation of Dalits asserts themselves against caste oppression through means of education. Education is the source to contest social status.” 

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