Book Review: Gendering Caste through a feminist lens by Uma Chakravarti

By Maria Jovita

Caste has been made to be this ambiguous concept, painted by mainstream media and society
to be almost holographic in nature. Thus a privileged individual grows up questioning if caste
still exists or is it just an excuse for reservation and a term used to discredit merit? But what
is caste and what does caste mean to a feminist? Uma Chakravarti in this book breaks down
the internalised casteist notions and practices hidden behind the garb of tradition and ritual.
She takes one on a journey wherein she educates one about caste through a gendered lens and
elucidates the role of caste in shaping our culture, rituals, practices and our way of life. The
book despite being written in 2003 is still greatly relevant and continues to act as a great
introduction to analysing and critiquing caste, class and its gendered nature.

The book unfolds the deeply rooted ideas and notions of Brahminism present in our society,
its origins and the way it continues to be reproduced and preserved. Uma Chakravarti breaks
down to the readers, the fundamentals of caste primarily rooted within the framework of
purity and pollution. The origins of the concept of purity can be traced back to Manusmriti.
Through the ‘pure high’ and ‘impure low’, the caste system decides who can and could not
perform sacrifices, worship and other sacred rituals. But in reality, it goes beyond just
religious practices and determines access to productive resources, access to knowledge and
their social status. On the surface, these notions of purity are portrayed to be limited to one’s
caste-allotted occupation but the author contends that it isn’t limited to their polluting
occupation but the system labels their inherent bloodline to be polluted. It is through these
notions of purity that there is discrimination and subordination of lower caste to prevent
social contamination and attempts are made to erect it as a universal hierarchical principle.
Chakravarti states that ‘pollution is the most visible and potent form by which exclusion is
achieved.’ It is through this framework untouchability was introduced, retained and continued
to be practiced.

Further, Chakravarti carefully brings in the other form of inequality framework – Class,
which is more universal and then delves into the relationship between Caste and Class in
India. These two hierarchies superimpose each other and form this unique form of inequality
resulting in two castes – those who hold land and those who do not. The book further talks
about how there was an active denial of knowledge and a traditional exclusion from learning

of lower caste which played an important role in shaping their place in the class structure.
Further, an interesting point brought to focus here is how the knowledge and skills of lower
caste and women were not considered as ‘knowledge’. I think this can be connected back to
how the capitalist structure has also conveniently followed the same path and undervalues the
work done by traditionally lower-caste occupations and women. Despite equality provided by
the constitution and protection through various acts, in reality especially in the last few years,
upper-caste men use violence to force lower caste people to continue their polluting
occupations. Thus through both caste and class, these identities occupy a place in the lower
end of the spectrum of power, control and respect.

The book after establishing the fundamental concept of caste introduced the key central pawn
of the caste system – women. From the Mesopotamia to the 21 st century, especially in
Brahmanical patriarchy, control over female sexuality has been the central feature of
subordination of women. The book very importantly sheds light upon how women were
viewed in Manusmriti and various mythologies. They were painted as biological creatures
which were wild, had an untamed nature and had an ‘innate’ sinful nature with inherent
wickedness and insatiable lust. It is only through Stri dharma that there is social control over
women transforming them into social beings from previously wild untamed biological
creatures. This provides the reader with a more in-depth understanding of the rationale
adopted to impose, justify and naturalise patriarchal values within the Brahmanical structure.
Manu lays down that the honour and respectability of upper-caste men resides in women and
thus they must be closely guarded and their sexuality ought to be stringently monitored. The
Hindu mythology takes this forward and depicts the ideal female traits to be one of chaste,
passive, beautiful, dutiful, long-suffering and faithful companions as can also be seen with
the depiction of Sita. It lays down that the best-guarded woman is the woman who controls
herself, hence the concept of self-surveillance is a crucial element to be an ideal female. It is
interesting and crucial to take note of how all these norms and ideals are continued to be
promoted, imbibed and taught to girls today under the garb of tradition, custom and family
values.

It becomes crucial to understand why the control over women is essential as it is through
control over their sexuality there is a reproduction of pure lines of lineage within the same
caste. Hence the book states how caste is a system of both production and reproduction and
both the hierarchical relations of caste and the immortality of male lines of the ancestors

rested on marriage practices and controlled reproduction. Chakravarti thus talks about how
the structured (arranged) marriage systems are fundamental for the Brahmanical social order.
The book further exposes the deeply seeped in patriarchy and the inherent casteist nature of
arranged marriage and practices surrounding marriage such as Kanyadan. Wherein the
biggest gift a man can provide is one of virgin women, more specifically the gift of her
sexuality and reproductive power. The best way to provide this gift is through the pre-
pubertal marriage of upper caste girls, wherein the unpolluted womb of the wife is gifted and
made to be the property of the husband before she begins to menstruate. Thus through this
Uma Chakravarti brings out the deeply seeped in notions of pure and impure present in
marriage and how through endogamous marriage they seek to control female sexuality.
Women are merely carriers and receptacles to produce pure and non-polluted heirs but are
never the carriers of line and their reproductive and productive labour are property of men.

But the intersectionality of caste and gender goes beyond just marriage. Uma Chakravarti
highlights widow remarriage as another segment wherein one can observe this
intersectionality. Further, it also acts as the best example to elaborate on the differential
treatment of women within the caste hierarchy. For upper-caste women, widowhood was a
state of social death that stems from her alienation from reproduction and sexuality post the
death of her husband and exclusion from her family. But this wasn’t the view for lower caste
women, wherein instead of enforced widowhood they had enforced cohabitation. This was an
arrangement to utilise productive and reproductive labour of widows to provide for the
maximal replenishing of the labouring and servicing caste. Further, the book delves into the
concept of graded patriarchies and elucidates the difference in how upper-caste women and
lower caste women experience patriarchy. Lower caste women are further dehumanised and
reduced to mere biological beings and were denied even the respect of a family woman which
was granted to upper-caste women. Thus, upper-caste men had sexual access to lower caste
women, and this casual and continuous use of lower caste women has been naturalised and
even accepted as per customs laid down by the Manu. Further, a more structural form of
access to Dalit women is through the devadasi system present in Hindu temples. The crucial
observation to be made here is how lower caste men did not have access to upper-caste
women, and as described in the book, even an alleged claim of sexual encounter between the
two can result in violent retribution upon both persons.

This brings us to critique the key element keeping this Brahmanical patriarchal structure alive
and intact – the use of violence or the threat of it. Violence has not just been used but has also
been prescribed by the Dharamashastras. In the case of violation of endogamy, it
recommends severe punishment which can range from the death of the lower caste man,
mutilation, and even excommunication for the woman. Through this, the book truly brings
into light how violence has been an intrinsic part to the working of Brahmanical patriarchal
norms and the continued subordination of people belonging to the lower caste, examples of
which range from Dalit girls being raped to inter-caste couples being killed. Making it a book
of extreme importance and relevance in the current Hindu (Brahmanical) Nationalist society.

Uma Chakravarti through this book has beautifully delved into caste and critiqued it through
a feminist lens as promised. Her work successfully helps one critically view the society
around and engage and evaluate the role of caste, especially the role of caste in shaping one’s
views and experiences of patriarchy. The book presents a perfect blend of literature, insight
into Dharamashastras, the Hindu mythology and connects it back to everyday events and
current affairs. Uma Chakravarti informs the reader sufficiently to form an informed opinion
and provides room for more thoughts.

Maria Jovita is currently a studuent at Jindal Global Law School.

Image Credits: Shamwoo

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