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How many ‘cherished’ daughters do you know of, who are disowned or even killed, if they violate the boundaries of caste?
Yesterday, in a development that shocked many, the Madras High Court acquitted Chinnasamy, a man who had been convicted of killing his daughter Kowsalya’s husband Shankar, simply because he happened to be a Dalit. Five other men convicted in the case earlier, had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.
Referring her parents by name, Kowsalya, a survivor of casteist ‘honour-killing’ voiced her disappointment regarding the verdict.
Koushalya, in her own words, has described herself as a “pet” of the family growing up. This transformation from being “the family pet” to a target of murder explains the fragility of “love and affection” that daughters receive, especially when caste rears its ugly head.
Indeed, when it comes to the presence or absence of caste, love marriage is the Schrodinger’s Cat experiment for a Tamil household. It can bring out either the free-thinking rationalist or a caste-obsessed killer. This coin toss is a tragic example of the short-lived goals of Periyar’s feminist visions, which political parties in the state claim to uphold.
Growing up, caste never was a topic that emerged in conversations. Any arguments that did happen were about boys versus girls, the freedom of boys compared to the strict rebukes I received for playing with boys or climbing walls and trees.
But there was one particular caste I did know of, that was the higher castes. Since we are non-vegetarians, the vegetarian high castes factored as a visible part of society. Reservation was the only topic discussed when caste popped up and the debates that followed between male elders discussed Brahminical hegemony. This upward and unidirectional focus of caste did not really interest me.
I did eventually come to know about other castes that were supposedly “lower”. In my village during the early 90’s, TV was really a luxury. Every Friday, people from the neighborhood lined up for Oliyum Oliyum with a specific group always sitting at the farthest end. I did not understand the significance of this distance until much later in adulthood.
At the time, growing up in Tamil Nadu pretty much involved focusing on studies, maintaining good marks and eventually, getting into a good college. The teenage years’ crushes and love did not have a serious presence. Tamil Nadu was very conservative in terms of love, and even the media that did talk about love never mentioned “caste” explicitly. Conflict in love was mostly based on “class” and a fight between “rich and poor”.
It was during this time that I remember a conversation where my relative recounted a story of a father murdering his daughter, who had fallen in love. The pride in my relative’s face and the nods of approval the story received really disturbed me. This was when I started to see the “pink elephant” in the corner that I had failed to see. The obvious element “caste” and its toxic effect on gender was pretty much self-explanatory.
With the years, this topic has become even more toxic. When discussing the few high-profile cases of caste-driven murder, many have disagreed with me and justified the killing by one’s own family. I particularly remember an instance where a male family friend said, “I have raised my daughter all these years, with so much love, for what… so that she ends up in some state like that? I know what’s best for her. ” My male friend is an educated man who believed that a grown woman was incapable of making decisions for her life.
This sentimental attachment towards daughters is not new. Even in older formula movies, the cherished, pampered daughter grows up carefree and pampered, yet, is eventually expected to toe the parental line. I specifically want to point to movies because movies do impact public opinion and perceptions. While I can conclude from personal experience that I didn’t explicitly follow what I saw onscreen, the content had desensitised me to violence. Also, I had internalised many values of chastity, love, objectification of women (sexual and otherwise), caste relations etc. Unlearning has been difficult but not impossible but even that has been because of the privileges I possess with regard to education, class and caste.
Another very important aspect to such caste-based killing is economics. Sharing family property with a different caste member is a sore point for many families. In the majority of the cases reported, couples where the women marry or fall in love with someone from a lower caste are victims of honour-killing. Even when women from lower castes marry into upper caste families, they endure hardships like abandonment or death at the hands of in-laws.
In a country where school drop-out numbers are so alarming for young girls, the cooped up (often, overprotected) existence does not really allow the girl to explore her wants, likes and dislikes. Colleges in TN too often practise strict rules and segregation between the sexes. Girls in these institutions face harsh moral policing so that “they stay out of love.” These systems in place are a far cry from the radical ideas of women empowerment espoused by Periyar. His brain-child, the self-respect marriages, have been one of the important cornerstones for progressive feminist stances. This has dwindled over the years in the wake of electoral politics that count vote-banks from the different castes paying lip-service to Periyar.
Love marriages and inter-caste couples are not rare, but lately, a strong sense of caste identity seems to be taking over individuals. One need not look further than Tik-Tok videos that get forwarded every day. There has been a revival of caste glory and adding caste surnames. In rural Tamil Nadu, boys sport different colour tags proclaiming caste identity and girls with different color pottu (bindis) the same way. They seem to suggest that it’s for kinship, not realizing the toxic effects of caste.
As someone who was clueless about caste well into my teens, it’s disheartening to be schooled on ‘caste glory’ by teenagers. It is especially sad when young girls speak of caste glory and are proud to perpetuate inequality. A lack of sensitisation towards caste and gender is the foremost to blame. Being a literate society is useless if feudalistic violence towards individual self-expression gets societal approval and not boycott.
In the absence of actual numbers, the sordid details of ‘honour killing’ that do emerge through the media deserves special attention from lawmakers. The justification given to such violence in the name of ‘caste purity’ has created more repressive systems that police women.
As long as caste remains a muted pride within individuals, progressive, let alone humanistic values of equality are a long way off for women.
Source: Vikatan TV
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