The institutions of caste, gender, and patriarchy in India are not as unambiguous as it might seem from the perspective of an outsider; complex coordination between them permeates the lives of almost everyone from the rural and semi-rural parts of India, despite the penetration of modern consumerist culture. We’re going to explore how these institutions of power interact with each other, and in turn how they make up the social order of the aforementioned parts of India.
Constraints on Marriage
As evident from many incidents from the past few decades, marriage and sexuality is tightly controlled in these societies. Marriage is almost always limited to intra-cast, the primary motivation being the solidarity of caste and the strengthening of its power. Exogamy, in this context, breaches the traditional norms, which brings shame not only to the couple but to the whole family and typically also to the extended family and caste. To make sure the younger population learns a lesson, these couples are sometimes punished inhumanely—by torture and death—which is justified according to the “law of the land.” The panchayats impose these punishments: the village panchayats, the caste panchayats, or in some cases, the larger khap panchayats. The local police do not intervene in these “social” matters. The policemen are usually recruited from the upper-caste population, so they believe these matters best be left to the traditional systems of justice. The conventions of status, tradition, honour, etc are the usual rationale behind these, but underneath all those it’s almost always a form of assertion and retention of power.
Caste and Gender
The standards of the customs we discussed in the previous section are not uniform within the genders. The upper-caste men have a practice of taking wives from the lower-caste population, and that’s usually well tolerated; according to the folk wisdom, the women have no caste, their caste is determined by the company they keep and the family they marry into. The fact that the male to female ratio is severely imbalanced plays a role—in the rural parts there are many more males than females, so sometimes it becomes essential for men to look outside their caste for marriage prospects; otherwise, the bloodline would stop, the family heritage would be lost, the caste would grow weaker. As we can observe, the caste institutions are very closely aligned with patriarchy, and rather it’s built on top of patriarchy. The caste system is a power dynamic within the already privileged male population; women are not much more than instruments from the perspective of the institution of patrilineal caste. In the next section we’ll explore how the sexuality of women is controlled and managed throughout their lives.
The experiences of women and men in the relevant societies are very different from each other. Women are almost like a resource—an instrument—they don’t have any fixed family identity or caste identity, let alone an identity as an independent individual. Throughout various rituals of socialization performed throughout their childhood, this social reality is hammered into their psyche.
A prepubescent girl isn’t treated much differently than a boy of similar age. They’re free to roam around, play with the boys, jump and laugh as they wish. As soon as they have their first menstruation, a dramatic shift occurs in their social reality. This change is signified by some specific ritual, the details of which vary from region to region, but it usually involves social isolation and a special diet. Pubescent girls are advised to stay indoors, they are required to wear saree (so that the upper body is covered properly), they aren’t allowed to eat particular “hot” or “cold” food, they are advised not to jump, talk loudly, or ride bicycles, they are taught to practice moderation and self-denial, and so on. These practices, in part, make sure the girls don’t explore their sexuality on their own, and in part, prepare them for the probable harsh environment of sasural or the house of the in-laws.
Throughout various festivities and rituals—like the Durgapuja in West Bengal—the girls are mentally prepared and socialized to accept that they won’t be able to visit their natal home frequently once they’re married. The marriage ritual itself involves a lot of symbolism signifying the complete transfer of the bride: where the bride severs all connection with their parents and the natal home, and is completely given over to her husband and his family. This transactional nature of marriage affects the relationship between the family and daughter to a great extent: any investment into her is considered an investment just for her own sake, and moreover, for her future marital family, it is not an investment towards the natal family. That’s why girls are often given less food, less education, and overall more attention compared to the boys. Understanding this reality, the girls encourage dowry because that’s one of the ways she can gain some identity and power in sasural.
Despite the fact that much of the population is now exposed to urbanization and modern consumerist culture, the social landscape hasn’t changed much. Only the masculine and macho parts of the urban environment have been integrated, the women’s experience remains more or less the same. As we’ve discussed, a complex interplay between caste, gender, and power maintains the status quo.
- Chowdhry, Prem. “Enforcing Cultural Codes: Gender and Violence in Northern India.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 32, no. 19, 1997, pp. 1019–1028., www.jstor.org/stable/4405393. Accessed 18 Aug. 2020.
- Dube, Leela. “On the Construction of Gender: Hindu Girls in Patrilineal India.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 23, no. 18, 1988, pp. WS11–WS19. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4378429. Accessed 18 Aug. 2020.