Gender And Caste Discrimination-A Toxic Combination.


            Half of the world’s population starts life at a disadvantage because of their gender. The systematic discrimination against females is incorporated in their birth certificates. “Women have constituted the most spectacular casualty of traditional history. They have made up at least half of the human race, but you would never be able to tell by looking at the books historians write,” said Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

            It is ironic that in the 21st century with all its claims to progress, that gender discrimination is still prevalent in different parts of the world and more so in India. While women in the West may be emancipated from several restrictions, India has still a long way to go. Indian women continue to be the oppressed majority. They suffer from ‘systemic social injustice’ because of their gender. Gandhiji said in his Autobiography “A Hindu husband regards himself as lord and master of his wife, who must ever dance attendance on him.”

            The comparative study of womanhood in ancient India and as it exists today makes interesting reading. In India, the progress made from prehistoric times to the Indus Valley civilization (3250-2750 B.C.) shows that men and women enjoyed equality. This was followed by the Vedic period (2500- 2000 B.C. which was supposed to be the Golden Age for women. Aryans were predominantly agriculturists and lived nomadic lives. Women shared equal status. They were allowed to study the Scriptures and take part in public debates, religious ceremonies and social life. They were equal partners in marriage. Girls were allowed to choose their life partners and widows could remarry.

            But when the Aryans gave up their nomadic existence and put down their roots, there was a gradual decline in women’s status. The men married non-Aryan women, who could not rise up to their standards. They were ignorant of Aryan rituals and could not participate in religious ceremonies with their husbands. They made mistakes and were debarred by the religious pundits, as unfit to participate in rituals. So these women lost the privileges that the Aryan women enjoyed.

            The later Vedic Period called the Epic period (2000 – 700 B.C.) demoted women further. Manu Smriti levelled many restrictions on women, even elevating husbands to the status of Gods. While women could not divorce their husbands, men could throw them out according to their whims and fancies. Sita was held up as an example of purity, chastity, patience and suffering.

            The influence of Islam (700 -1857 A.D.) further diminished the status of women, even though Mohammad in the 7th century held the view that wives aren’t slaves. “They are an independent identity and need economic security.” With the introduction of the purdah system women became completely dependent on their men for work outside the home.

            However, subordination of women was complete long before Muslims came along. Through Brahmanical patriarchy, hierarchical social order based on class, caste and gender was already entrenched in society. Men had moral authority, control over family, property and privileges, political leadership and religion. Women were kept in subordination. Their activities were restricted to their homes. Their reproductive capacity was exploited and their roles limited to wife, mother and home maker. Indoctrination made them believe that this was their karma for their sins in previous lives. Men thought of different ways to consolidate their superiority. Sons were considered more important as they not only carried the family name and inherited property, they had to perform the last rites of their parents. So education, nutrition and good health became the priority of males. Religious traditions and social institutions promoted the inferior status of women. Further, Caste hierarchy consigned a large section of people to inferior status and untouchability.

            But from the early 19th century, social reform movements like Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission fought against the social evils of inequality of the sexes and the deplorable plight of women and girls. The movement was initiated by men like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and Dayananda Saraswathi who openly challenged practices of Sati, child marriage and lack of education of female children. Many brave women joined the fight. Between 1915 -1947 many women joined the Quit India Movement to assert their political rights. They were spurred on by men like Mahatma Gandhi who said, “There is no occasion for women to consider themselves subordinate or inferior to men.” It was a tedious struggle against vested interests. Rather than gratitude, these women received abuse for their pains.

            Over the years there have been many movements against dowry, rape, sati, and sex selection. Some even got the government to pass laws. But whether these laws were strictly enforced or not is another matter. The All India Women’s Conference enlightened women through their publications on themes like social, cultural, educational and economic matters. They kept women informed about national issues and problems facing women.

            Post-Independence many women have reached enviable heights. They are politically and economically empowered and serve in high positions. Some are Governors, some are Ambassadors to foreign countries or Presidents of International bodies. They have broken the glass ceiling in hierarchical corporations and preside over Scientific Academies. Women are inducted in to the Army, Navy and Air Force. They have even proved their skills in games like Cricket which was once a man’s game. India had a woman as Prime Minister, as President and as Speaker. And yet because of male chauvinism, the Woman’s Reservation Bill for 33% representation in all local bodies hangs fire in Lok Sabha. Indira Gandhi said Indian women had more rights than women in other countries but were suffering partly because they were not conscious of their rights.

            However, there is a vast difference in the lives of rural women. Millions of rural women face insecurity, poverty, lack of education, domestic violence, poor reproductive health due to repeated pregnancies and lack of health care. “Our men value animals more than us in spite of the back breaking work we do from morn till night,” they said. Because of the bias in favour of male children female foeticide takes place in many places. With the advent of ultrasound machines termination of pregnancies have increased in spite of the PNDT Act of 1996, which prohibits sex determination tests. Infanticide of female babies through starvation, strangulation or abandonment is also reported from time to time. This has resulted in a skewed sex ratio of 924 females to 1000 males according to National statistics.

Occasionally one hears of certain tribes like the Chamar Mangta tribe in a U.P. village who in spite of being backward, illiterate and poor, welcome the birth of girl children with a celebration. In this community, dowry is paid to the bride’s family by the groom.

Early marriage, frequent child bearing and unending domestic work contribute to the poor health of women. Many are anaemic and malnourished. Even though women are involved in cooking the food, they usually get only the leftovers after the man of the house and male children have had their fill.

Apart from domestic duties many women have to work outdoors. Their wages are always lower than the males and invariably appropriated by their husbands.

            Gender and Caste truly make a toxic combination. Casteism has shunned a large group of people. Dr. Ambedkar said “The guilt belongs to religion which has bred the poison of Casteism. It is a form of sanctioned slavery.”

The lower castes are expected to do menial jobs and are branded with the stigma of untouchability. Attacks against low caste women have taken on bestial forms. Rape by upper caste men continues even today and keeps increasing in some pockets of India. According to National statistics one rape occurs every 16 minutes. Even as the gruesome gang rape of Nirbhaya in 2011 still lingers in our minds, the recent Hathras gang rape by upper caste men has sent shock waves throughout the country. Rape is a form of social brutality used for exercising power and inflicting shame on the lower castes. These men of dominant castes are never prosecuted and the police are in cahoots with the perpetrators of crime, while treating victims as culprits. It has often been proven that there is complicity of the State in such matters. Rape is not only a crime against an individual but against the entire civilized society.

            There are many other indignities showered on lower castes. In rural areas, the privilege of redress through local village Panchayats is denied to them as is shown in one incident in Krishnanagar. 29 Dalit families were denied groceries, milk and water from the common tap because they refused to withdraw a case they had filed against caste Hindus. The Panchayat ordered a fine of Rs.5000/- to be levied on anyone providing them with essentials.

Whenever there is an epidemic or some misfortune in the community, widows are branded witches and chased out of the village or even stoned to death. This happens more often when a widow owns a small patch of land which the upper castes want to grab from her.

            Humiliation follows the Dalits whatever their status. In Cuddalore Tamilnadu, a Dalit Panchayat President who happened to be a woman was humiliated by the upper caste Vice President and made to sit on the floor during Panchayat meetings, while the others sat on chairs. She was also not allowed to hoist the National flag on Independence Day.

            Vidyagama – open air schools in North Karnataka were opened with the hope of resolving caste discrimination in education. But when the classes were held in temples and mutts, the lower caste children were not allowed to attend. So the teachers thought of holding classes in Dalit colonies. The high castes objected and did not send their children to school for several days until better sense prevailed. This same caste discrimination happens in Anganwadis (crèches) too. The upper castes do not allow their children to eat food provided free of cost, if the meal is cooked by a woman of lower caste.

            In the late 70s, when Feminism became a mass movement in the West, urban Indian women who were educated and economically independent, got influenced by western perspectives of womanhood. They became more aware of their sexuality which was expressed through dress, speech, mannerisms and behaviour. They challenged archaic notions of modesty and honour, and fought for their rights to live with dignity. It was in no way an invitation to violence and rape. The ‘Slut Walk’ in Delhi and other major cities in India began in Toronto as a reaction against a police officer’s statement that women could avoid victimization if they did not dress like sluts. In India, women walked the streets in pink, challenging cultural beliefs that women’s attire was the cause of violence against women. They wanted to prove that women could be sexy without being branded as sluts. But in spite of all these demonstrations, sexual harassment, molestation and rape continue to endanger the lives of Indian women. This is due to the narrow mindset of men in general and even many politicians and those in power, who believe that women’s bodies are for sexual recreation. This regressive mindset was exhibited in none other than a previous President Gyani Zail Singh who referred to women as Bhogi ka cheez (object of enjoyment.) On and off politicians are heard denigrating women. Only recently, an actor who is also a right wing rabble rouser said women going out to work and thinking of being equal to man is the cause of #Me Too incidents. The #Me Too movement has brought to the fore sexual harassment of women and girls at all levels, by men in power and position.

            If Society is to change from Patriarchy to Equality, women themselves must be agents of change against gender discrimination. “If Society will not admit free development of women, then Society must be remodeled,” said Elizabeth Blackwell. Women have a right to live with dignity. They must have the courage to defy conventions and fight against gender discrimination.

“The collective strength of women together with the State’s intervention can make a big difference in achieving gender parity,” said Meira Kumar, former Lok Sabha Speaker.

            The most important step in the transformation of Society is socialization and attitudinal change towards women. Socialization of society is the first step towards developing a counter culture that will work for the equality of the sexes. The process must begin at home, even from the cradle. The colour coding of girls in pink and boys in blue is the beginning of discrimination. It gradually grows when girls are presented with dolls and tea sets while boys get toys like cars, engines or pistols. It perpetuates the idea that girls are weak and boys are strong. Male and female children should receive equal treatment vis a vis nutrition, health, education and other privileges. Early indoctrination of children to accept double standards for boys and girls must cease.

            The impact of socialization in schools cannot be stressed enough. To promote gender equality, teachers especially those in co-ed schools, will need to have an attitudinal change. No favoritism should be shown to boys and no harassment of girls. Neither should boys be allowed to ride rough shod over their female classmates. Boys and girls must be taught to mutually respect each other. Girls must not only learn to appreciate their worth as daughters, wives, mothers and home makers but also as persons in their own right. Teachers should also make it clear that students have the freedom of choice in the subjects they choose, depending on their inclination. They must not be limited by cultural stereotypes like Engineering and Medicine for boys and Home Science or Nursing for girls.

Text books may need to be re-written so that they don’t promote images of boys and girls as unequal. There should be equality in highlighting professions and occupations. School programmes like dramas and films should depict women as successful personalities and dedicated professionals.

            Socialization must continue is society so that men and boys are re-educated to shed their attitude of superiority and learn to respect women. Media interventions like TV, Radio, newspapers, and mass media can alter attitudes towards gender norms. Social justice issues like caste discrimination, land grabbing, trafficking in women and girls, discrimination in the work place and other gender based stereotypes and prejudices can be highlighted in media, educating communities to change their attitudes about gender discrimination, caste based atrocities and misogyny. Progress in this respect has already begun. The younger generation questions meaningless customs and traditions.

            Education of girls is of primary importance in the uplift of all women irrespective of caste or social status. If they are to be empowered, girls ought to have equal opportunities to study. Of the 330 million illiterates in India, 59% are said to be women. The overall rate of literacy in the country in 2019 was supposed to be 69.1%. But the gap between male and female literacy rates stands at about 21%. This is because of the entrenched bias that women’s roles are limited to domestic duties, thus making them disregard education. Many may be compelled to discontinue studies because of domestic responsibilities. Girls should be given equal opportunities to study. This will help them challenge superstitions and fight against repressive practices. A good education will improve career prospects and eligibility for jobs. Various NGOs are actively involved in promoting education for girls. The government’s ‘Beti bachao Beti padao’ scheme if effectively implemented in all villages, will positively affect the status of girls and facilitate universal literacy in India by the year 2030.  Education can be made compulsory at least for a few years so that young minds can be geared to creative thinking. In cities, gender parity has already begun. Technology is being used to promote literacy in rural areas through TV programmes and the Internet. As the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a toll for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty and a building block in development.”

Education should be relevant to modern times. It should keep up with modern science and technology. Digital literacy must become a priority. It has proved its importance during this time of the pandemic when education is mostly through online learning, and schools are not likely to reopen fully in the near future.

Older people who wish to improve their status should have opportunities to attend Adult Education classes.

            Non formal education should be made available to school drop outs and village women. Courses and training in different skills like tailoring, catering, hair dressing and craft would economically empower them and make them entrepreneurs. According to one UNDP report, 35000 women in U.P. were trained in finance management and enterprise development so that they could set up their own businesses and eliminate middlemen. The case of one Usha Devi was highlighted as she has become the Manager of a Dairy Producers’ Association and has 12000 women under her supervision. There are many such successful projects in rural India which have enhanced women’s economic power.

            According to World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, India has slipped from 108th to 112th rank. Women in India make up 48.3% of the population but rank 149th in economic participation, 112th in education and 150th in health and survival. But with a country as large as India and a population of nearly 1.6 billion, progress cannot be expected overnight. The process has certainly started. According to McKinsey and Company report, if women participate in economic activities $770 billion could be added to India’s GDP by 2025. Even the International Monetary Fund says that GDP could increase by 27% if women participated in greater economic activities.

There are many such successful projects in pockets of rural India which will enhance women’s economic power through income generating projects. SEWA – Self Employed Women’s Association which was started in Ahmadabad many years ago has proved to be so successful that it has been duplicated in several other parts of India. Self Help Groups by women and for women have remarkably improved the economic status of many village women.

As Dalits form 16.6% of the population, welfare schemes inclusive of them will meet their socioeconomic needs, reduce poverty and uplift their social status. Bank loans will facilitate entrepreneurship and save them from loan sharks and money lenders.

            Increased representation of women in public spheres will improve their status. Women should be given at least 1/3rd representation in local governments and village Panchayats. It has been seen that villages managed by women are more peaceful and experience less crime.

Women should have better representation in political decision making and developmental programmes. “Democracy and Development can never be equitable if women are excluded from policy making and implementation,” says Meira Kumar, former Lok Sabha Speaker.

Equal Inheritance Rights will empower women and must be strictly implemented.

            Safety of women both in public places and at home must be assured. Women should enjoy freedom from sexual harassment and exploitation. Caste, gender, class come together to oppress women in general and Dalit women in particular. Upper class dominance and police insensitivity to crimes against women have destroyed the lives of many women. Police reforms and increase in the number of women in the police force could bring about better security for women. At present there are only about 9% women in the police force. Prompt action against culprits should be taken. Fast track courts must deliver speedy justice. Victims must not be intimidated.

Harassment of students and working women who travel by train or bus is very common in cities. Inappropriate comments, groping, touching, pushing or staring are the daily experiences of almost 89% of women. Onlookers never volunteer help and are indifferent to their embarrassment.

Child marriages though banned by the law continue to take place in many North Indian villages. Prompt action should be taken against offenders, as well as the local authorities who turn a blind eye to such practices. The fate of child widows is truly tragic as remarriage is forbidden even though legally sanctioned.

Trafficking in girls and young women for the purpose of prostitution should be severely punished. Demeaning practices of Temple prostitution like the Devadasi system must be condemned. If the laws against such evil practices are strictly enforced, they can be totally abolished.

A woman is given freedom of choice under the Constitution, to marry whomever she chooses. Intercaste marriages can be conducted under the Special Marriage Act of 1954. Yet of late, there have been many cases where boys and girls are subjected to ‘honour killings.’ Some of the States have brought out laws against ‘love jihad.’

            India is a country in transition. Though the country has made remarkable strides towards the elimination of gender and caste discrimination, it has a very long way to go. As free citizens of Democratic India, women must raise their voices against laws that guaranty the superiority of men. Male superiority on moral, physical, psychological, sexual, social and economic fronts must cease. Women should personally and collectively celebrate their gender esteem bestowed on them by a benevolent Creator. This esteem should percolate down to the last village woman. In some cases, rural victims are beginning to fight back. They have their own inventive ways of protest. The Gulabi Gang is a band of village women who fight for their rights in the badlands of Bundelkhand. The ‘Meira Paibis’ – a collective of women’s power in the North East, have high social status and are feared my unsocial elements.

Some of the rural women have surprised their urban counterparts by their fortitude. A few years ago in a tiny village in Kutch, women demonstrated against the dowry system and wiped out this evil from several villages in the area. They were alarmed when 37 dowry deaths were reported in 2005 alone. “We have to save our daughters from going up in flames,” they said. Apart from protests against the sarapanches who did not take action against the offenders and permitted dowry demands to escalate, the women organized films and awareness campaigns through the help of an NGO. Men and women were convinced that this practice was evil, and decided to eradicate the dowry menace permanently.

Similarly, tribal women in a village of 225 families in Andhra enforced total prohibition. No brewing, no selling, no consumption was permitted. As a result, the lives of womenfolk have changed for the better.

            Society’s social, economic and political problems can be solved only if there is full participation and full empowerment of women, with inclusive growth in all spheres of life. If women are treated as rational creatures and equal citizens, they will quickly become good wives, mothers and daughters, so long as men do not neglect to perform their duties as husbands, fathers and caring individuals. Dr. Ambedkar was of the opinion that Justice is possible only when there is abolition of the caste system and women are allowed to live as free citizens of democratic India. Women have many important roles to play and should not be limited to cultural stereotypes.


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