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Centuries of Brahmanical patriarchy: How caste controls Women, and their sexuality

by Ananya Bhargava

Controlling women and their sexuality has been the bedrock of the caste system, which has emanated and maintained a hierarchical social order dominated by upper-caste upper men. This social order is legitimised through various Brahmanical texts and rituals, which necessitate the domination and superiority of the Brahman male over other women and men. Centuries of this domination have maintained the notion of “purity” and “honour” of women through endogamous marriage, which has culminated into the creation of a system of patriarchy unique to India: Brahmanical patriarchy. Through an analysis of Uma Chakravarti’s “Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens”, I attempt to argue how Brahmanical patriarchy has systematically oppressed women (especially of lower castes) and controlled their sexuality through its interaction with the state, civil society and the economy. Further, I will explore how Brahmanical patriarchy asserts its dominance through marriage, traditions and the concept of “honour”.

Women’s complicity in the caste system

The control of women and their sexuality has been legitimised in  Hindu society in the name of traditions and culture. This is why many women have internalised misogynistic values in the name of “stri dharma” or the appropriate codes of conduct for women, thus becoming complicit in perpetuating the whole system of inequality. The caste-ridden society exerts control over women through a system of rewards and punishment. Therefore, compliance with patriarchal codes and norms allows women to access the material resources of their families and maintain a status of respect in  society. Deviance, on the other hand, expels them from such material resources of the family as well as tarnishes their reputation in society. The overarching patriarchal setting asserts so much influence on women’s lives that even their individual decisions result from the oppressive social conditions surrounding them. 

As Uma Chakravarti points out, the compliance of women to the oppressive patriarchal structure is “normalised” under the garb of “upholding religion or culture”. In her words, “women are regarded as upholding the religion by conforming to the Brahmanical codes, men on the other hand uphold traditions by enforcing these codes- not upon themselves but upon women.”       As Chakravarti rightly points out that in a Brahmanical patriarchy setting, men are merely the rule makers and enforcers while the women are rule followers. The upper caste men for centuries asserted their dominance on the bodily autonomy and sexuality of women in the name of customs and traditions. This is manifested in the institution of marriage, where the autonomy of a woman is completely transferred to her husband. Under the ancient practice of Sati in Hindu society, the widowed wife was supposed to sacrifice herself with her husband. Thus, under Sati, a woman’s life was contingent upon her husband; woman was not an individual entity. While the practice of Sati is banned in contemporary society, Brahmanical oppression finds various manifestations even today, majorly through practices like endogamy in marriage.

Honour and Purity of a woman in Brahmanical society

The institution of marriage is a deeply entrenched societal institution. It is a reflection of caste hierarchies and is a way to perpetuate the segregation of castes through endogamy. Marriage has, for centuries, stripped women of their bodily autonomy. The Manusmriti lays down the proper rules for eligible marriages permitting some and forbidding others based on caste and in every instance, treating women like objects of transfer to maintain the purity of the caste. The women in the matrimony are treated as objects who adheres to the needs and desires of their husband. The legalisation of marital rape is also a product of Brahmanical patriarchy. Women are devoid of consent and agency under the caste system. They are used to facilitate the caste-based system of an arranged marriage to protect the “purity” of the upper caste. The extreme control over women in the institution of marriage precludes any resistance to the caste-based order and thus perpetuates Brahmanical patriarchy. As Sowjanya Tamalapakula writes, if this control over women is subverted, caste dies a quick death,”

Endogamy is a pre-requisite for the furtherance of the caste system. In the words of Sharmila Rege, “the superimposition of endogamy and exogamy means the creation of caste”. In this way, the equality of sexes as well as varnas became an antithesis to the very existence of caste. Consequently, the concept of endogamy lies in the notion of “purity” and “pollution”. The upper caste, due to their purity, cannot marry the lower caste or else they will be defiled. Any deviance from this attracts sanctions. honour killings by panchayats have been common in the past with respect to intermarriages. While both men and women have been harmed by “endogamy”, the impact on women is much more. The concept of “honour” in the caste system is contingent on women. If a woman marries outside her caste, her honour or “purity” is tarnished.  Thus, “honour killing” is seen as a form of restoration of the lost honour. The “purity” of women is associated with maintaining the blood purity of the ancestry and the social hierarchy of the family. As Uma Chakravarti noted, “any relationship based on genuine consent of the partners is ‘interpreted as a defiance of patriarchal authority and a threat to endogamy”. Thus, marriage legitimizes the violent, caste-based ordering of the society that is dependent on erasing the consent of women.

The overlapping disadvantage of Dalit women

As Dr Ambedkar stated, caste is enclosed in class and further concluded that women are the gateways of the caste system and it is the caste system which provides a structure for the subordination of women. While the caste system relies on the oppression of all women, Dalit women have experienced overlapping disadvantages due to the pervasive system of inequality. As Uma Chakravarti points out, Dalit women are oppressed in three ways, “as subjects to caste oppression at the hands of upper castes, as labourers subject to class-based oppression mainly at the hands of upper and middle caste men who form the bulk of landowners, as women who experience patriarchal oppression at the hands of all men, including men of their own caste. This intersectional oppression of Dalit women has become so normalised and institutionalised in the Brahmanical society that even heinous crimes committed against them elicit a negligible response from the State.

Take the Hathras rape for instance where a Dalit woman was raped by a Thakur man. The police, instead of arresting the rapists, went on to forcefully cremate the body of the victim. Many such rape cases have been reported and have been dismissed by the police due to the inherent casteism in society. The rape of a Dalit woman by an uppercase man is a “crime of power”, it is a way for the upper caste man to assert his dominance and control the sexuality of the woman. In the case of Dalit women, the concept of “honour” also doesn’t come into the picture. Unlike upper-caste women, Dalit women are considered impure or without honour. Thus, crimes against the “honour of women” like rape, assault etc., are not considered crimes against Dalit women. The Dalit women are perceived as having no modesty; thus, their rape does not defile the “purity” of the caste system. The Dalit women’s body is abused and brutalised because of their caste, this is done in order to reassert the power structure, the dominance of upper caste men and their control over the bodily autonomy of the lower caste women.

To conclude, the caste system has for centuries controlled the sexuality and autonomy of women and has perpetuated patriarchy in the process. Dalit women have been at the receiving end of most of the caste atrocities. Their autonomy, honour and individuality have been exploited and oppressed for the furtherance of Brahmanical patriarchy. The sexuality and agency of a woman has been controlled by “few men” for a long time and unless and until this is changed, Indian society will never be liberalised.

Author’s Bio: – Ananya Bhargava (she/her) is a second-year law student at Jindal Global Law School. 

Image credit : https://kashmirreader.com/2020/06/04/book-review-kashmirs-resistance-politics-also-shapes-feminist-struggles/

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