The Feminist Times
The Intersection of Caste and Gender
(image source: CNN)
The subjugation of women is a well established fact, not only in India but all across the world. But this suppression intersects with another aspect, that is caste, in the Indian context. Caste is a unique feature of the Indian society and is a common ground for discrimination here. The Indian society is largely divided into the so called lower castes and the upper castes with the latter suppressing and exploiting the former since a fairly long time. Even with India being constituted into a democracy, the situation has hardly changed. The atrocities on the lower castes continue even till today in different forms and magnitude. And the worst affected are the women of these lower castes. As per a report published by a digital news platform, The Print dated 23 March, 2021, the crimes against SC/ST women and children rose by 15% but the conviction rate remained low. The report quoted data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) which stated that 15% of the cases registered under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act from 2017-2019 were against women and children.
A lower caste man experiences subjugation by the upper caste men and women. But a
lower caste woman experiences double subjugation; one by the upper castes and the other by the men of her own caste. Some of the upper caste men exploit her for their own
sexual gratification and some lower caste men mostly inflict violence on these women to reaffirm their own masculinity (read toxic masculinity) in the event of suppression by the upper castes.
The Centre for Dalit Rights group had conducted a study of 16 districts of India between 2004 and 2013 where 100 incidents of sexual violence were reported against Dalit women and girls. It was found that the perpetuators came from 36 castes which also included Dalits. The study was quoted by the BBC (dated 06 October, 2020) in their coverage of the Hathras rape case of 2020. The violence on Dalit women came in different forms. In a 2006 study of 500 Dalit women in four states across India on the forms of violence they had faced, 54% had been physically assaulted; 46% had been sexually harassed; 43% had faced domestic violence; 23% had been raped; and 62% had been verbally abused.
The name Phoolan Devi needs no introduction to us, Indians. Almost everyone in India is aware of her valorous story, the story of the Bandit Queen. Hers is a story that bears witness to the atrocities of the upper castes on the lower castes. That she was raped by not just upper caste men but men of her own caste as well; not once but multiple times and that she took it upon herself to punish them is indicative of her lack of trust in the system that mostly sides with the privileged who are in most cases the Upper castes. Even after so many years since the Phoolan Devi case, situations have barely changed.
In 2020, a gang rape case had created a nationwide outrage. A 19 year old Dalit girl was raped by her four upper caste neighbors in the district of Hathras in Uttar Pradesh.
There were reports that the local police had cremated the body of the girl in the middle of the night without informing her family possibly in an attempt to shield the accused.
After the case captured media attention, it was transferred to the CBI for investigation. But it has taken two years for our judicial system to arrive at a judgment and convict
the culprits. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data of 2019, every day almost ten Dalit women or girls were raped. But this might just be the tip of the iceberg since most of the rape cases go unreported in India. The caste based violence on women is a serious issue in our country which needs to be dealt with. The change cannot be brought about by the State alone but will require efforts from the society at large which would require change in the mentality of the people. It cannot be denied that caste intersects with gender in India taking up a monstrous form for the women of the lower caste who suffer at the hands of the men in our society.
The hypocrisy of our society is such that the ones who talk about caste purity and refuse to associate with the Dalits, forget all about this untouchability when it comes to their gratification. Renowned historian, Uma Chakravarti in her book, ‘Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens’ has pointed out how prostitution has a majority of low caste
women; a practice that has continued since the Devdasi tradition in India. But these brothels are frequented by many upper caste men who very conveniently forget about the ‘untouchability’ of these women to satiate their desires. Such hypocrisy needs to be done away with and Dalit women should be accorded the respect that they deserve.
Even though it will be a long road to bring about justice and equality for the marginalized in our society, it is a road worth taking. We need to make our country safe for women and not just women of the privileged classes. We need to ensure that this intersection of caste and gender does not become a threat to women of certain communities. Only then can we claim to have truly progressed and prospered.
- Suyasha Singh.