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Caste Lives In India – And Abroad

Posted: July 9, 2012

The caste system in India persists even among the  highly educated and affluent Indian diaspora. Can we call ourselves truly liberated?

By Zion Lights

This article was originally published at Huffington Post.

I wish I had fallen for a Brahmin“, she said with all sincerity, shaking her head in my direction. I murmured words of understanding and shook my head back. My moral compass was shaking too.

Meet my friend Parvati*. We grew up together in Britain in the late 80s and early 90s, and we were not what people thought of as ‘standard’ Asian girls at the time. We wore our hair short, had scabbed knees from constantly running and falling over, and we expected more from life than marrying men chosen by our parents. We did not always see eye to eye on everything, but as is often the way with life-long friends, we could both see where the other had come from.

Parvati and I were the first females in our families to go to university. Parvati completed a degree in teaching, and I had a thirst for travel and visited various corners of the world. It was an exciting time for second generation Asians, and the question on our lips was – what did fate have in store for hardworking, independent Asian women?

Parvati often spoke excitedly about how Asian women today were “free to do as they please; wear English clothes, short dresses and skirts, go clubbing and drinking.” She would give examples of how free Asian women were now compared to back then. “They are teachers, writers, lawyers, anything they want to be,” she’d say. While I agree that we have come a long way, I can’t share her enthusiasm.

This is because Parvati had been secretly dating the same man for over four years. This independent and educated female was terrified of the consequences if her parents discovered that she was in a relationship with a low caste Hindu, because in Parvati’s high-caste Brahmin family it is forbidden for women to marry into lower caste families. Here Parvati lost my understanding. How could she allow what is essentially a form of racism concealed by religion to continue through her own choices?

I didn’t feel able to ask Parvati this question aloud, but I did ask why she didn’t just marry her partner. “They might have him murdered“, she whispered to me one evening over a bottle of wine, shaking and tearful. “The extended family would laugh at us and disown us, and they’d never forgive me for dirtying their honour. I don’t know what they might do in response to that.

A rare anecdote, you might say; an unlikely story? But this is the story of Asian women around the world. Whether they are living in India, Europe or the US, whether they are artists, lawyers or doctors, scratch the surface and the thick residue of an old inequality still remains. With their modern dresses these women wear a set of rusty, confining shackles.

Another friend of mine, Chandra, who spent three years secretly living with her Sikh partner while studying for her degree, confided in me after rejecting a marriage proposal from the love of her life. Her family are Jat, the wealthy, upper class caste in Sikh culture, so Chandra knew that marrying a man of a lower caste would be an unforgivable act. Chandra’s partner left her, and convinced that she would never find love again, Chandra had an arranged marriage to a Jat friend of the family. She became bitter and reckless, and was never quite the same again.

Parvati on the other hand, a stubborn woman who was used to having her way, would not give in. She confided in her mother, who, terrified of what her husband would do if he found out, begged her to stop seeing the low caste Hindu. She pleaded with her and scolded her. Bullied her and self-flagellated before her. But eventually, and for the sake of saving her family’s honour, Parvati’s mother gave in. She interrogated the imposter from the ‘lower classes’, who could not tell her anything about his own caste background because his parents had deliberately not taught him about it. This is typical of immigrant lower castes, wanting to leave behind the inequality of caste culture when they left their country of birth. They left for better things, after all.

Parvati’s mother conceded to a marriage based on strict rules. One – the lower caste boy must learn everything about the Brahmin way of life and take on the identity of a Brahmin; change his name, create a fake family history, and take part in a Brahmin wedding ceremony. Two, there must be no celebration for the lower caste family, because that would be like laughing in the faces of the Brahmin family who didn’t know the truth. Three, no one must ever, ever know the truth.

Parvati’s boyfriend consented because he recognised shackles that were bendable but, above all, held fast by decades of prejudice and snobbery. Meanwhile Parvati worried there would be karmic repercussions for defying every rule in the Indian woman’s guidebook, but she carried her burdens with her head held high, continuing to work, make wedding preparations, and smile like a good Asian bride-to-be. None of her non-Asian friends suspected a thing.

The lower caste family did hold a secret, unpermitted celebration of their own. The groom’s parents sat quiet and no one mentioned the fact that only the groom’s side of the family attended, or that the bride was missing. No one spoke about the injustice, or showed anger, or defended their apparently lowly selves from the sickness that is caste. The Asian lower castes are a humble lot – and used to putting up with their lot too.

One of my Asian friends was angry about it. “If this happened in India“, he said, “they’d all be put in jail.” India officially recognises caste discrimination and has laws prohibiting it, but Asian people living abroad continue to vehemently deny that caste is a form of racism. There are no laws specifically banning caste discrimination in western countries, partly because it happens in secret and partly because it is practiced by law abiding citizens; the families I have mentioned are in no way fundamentalists, but proud British-Asians, who have integrated into western culture well. Yet while their religions teach tolerance, they suffer from a mental sickness that gives them power, status, and control over others.

And there’s no hiding from that. To avoid giving your caste when asked denotes that you are a lower caste, and younger generations cannot escape the shackles because Asian names can be indicative of the family’s caste – so those who cling to caste inequalities enforce them on their children in this way.

I listen to my British Asian friends chatter about how women are free to choose careers and fewer children, or no children at all. How modern Asian men share the housework duties, change nappies. But my question is – Are we really free to marry who we please? Sadly, the answer is no. I fear we are a very long way away from that.

*Names have been changed for protective purposes.

*Photo credit: wajakemek|rashdanothman (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)

About The Author: Zion Lights is a writer and mother interested in feminism, ethics, and green living. She is a regular contributor at One Green Planet and a columnist at The Vegan Woman. She lives in the West Midlands in the UK.

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  1. So true

    I grew up in India and spent my teens and adulthood in Middleeast. I come from a caste group which falls under OBC.I would nt call my self a lower caste at all, cos others dont define me. In my eyes I am just like others ,cos in South India ,some groups have climbed the caste ladder by serving thier women to brahmins and most of shun that.

    I agree wid u regarding lower caste mentality of not telling kids about caste sysytem , likewise i m also like that.BUT in India higher caste know less anout it BUT lower castes are always aware of it.

    In India there is a general perception that high caste means good looking and clean habits WHILE low aste ugly and filthy.

    Like wise in India ,poor or dark skinned upper castes have this tendency to insult the other castes in public.And gang up against whenever they get a chance.It also shows thier inferiority

    .I have nt taught my son (8years old) what caste and crap is.

    In India ,you learn all these

  2. Raj Kiran Singh -

    Two different caste people have very different upbringing and cluture. You cannot just summarise it in one article. Its very similar to difference between two people with big economic disparity.

  3. Raj Kiran Singh -

    And please spare me but so called western society have much worst profiling systems for people racism, wealth being few. Caste system is bad becuase 50% of population is deprived of some very basic rights. But no society can be formed without having some kind of societal structure. However its also societies responsibility to give every member a fair chance to change their stature in society, which is sadly not happening for past 1000 years, caste system has got rigid by day.

    • Umm, so we can choose and always lay the blame on the western society whenever we wish to? Why not just dig into our own house and clean up instead of worrying about our neighbor (western countries) homes.

      Agreed with what you say about society’s role. Our society doesn’t change because somewhere deep down some people don’t want it to change because it is “tradition” and it somehow benefits them.

      It can only go away, if we permit intercaste marriages and if we stop using/mentioning/talking of caste in anyway( official or not). The lines will then blur in a few decades maybe then.

  4. Having come out of Hinduism and coming from Sri Lanka I can understand some of the issues. I am so glad I found Christ and even though I come from a high caste, I now understand that God made man, man made caste system, for he loves the ‘pecking order’ to lord it over others. I admit that there are ruling classes (Elite) and snobs in the Western Society, but Bible teaches that man and woman are made in the image of God and we are all equal in the Lord’s eyes.

    Jesus (Son of Man) taught His disciples this truth:
    Matthew 20:. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

    Unfortunately the elite don’t believe in the Bible hence they don’t follow the Bible. Because of that we can’t throw the baby with the bath water. I came to trust the Bible, for I started reading from Genesis and found that Hinduism had borrowed a lot of customs from Judaism and wondered how much of it was authentic of it own and when I read the 2nd Commandment I freaked out.
    Exodus 20:
    3 You shall have no other gods before me. (Hinduism has 330 million gods counting….)
    4 You shall not make unto yourself any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: (Hinduism is a case of more the merrier)

    I am glad that I have come to know the Truth and at the Judgement day, Jesus will be my advocate. NO REGRETS whatsoever of getting out of Hinduism, where we prostrate ourselves to stones and worship forms made in the shape of animals (Ganesha) and male organs (Lingam). It is not even paganism but animism.

    God’s Wrath Against Unrighteousness

    18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;
    19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God has showed it unto them.
    20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and deity; so that they are without excuse:
    21 Because, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
    22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,
    23 And changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.
    24 Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves:
    25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.


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