Book Review: Gendering Caste: through a feminist lens

The core of the caste system lies in the power dynamics between castes and prominently, between genders. Exploring the gender dynamics within the caste hierarchies has been a major topic among the feminist scholars from the past two decades. It has become an important issue to be addressed in social disciplinary studies. Also, understanding relations between caste and gender have provided new dimensions to studies of anti-caste movements and feminist movements. 

Gendering Caste is written by Uma Chakravarti, an Indian feminist historian, who had extensively worked on issues relating to gender, caste, and class by tracing experiences in history and linking their course with the contemporary scenarios. The book argues that the caste system not only exploits the reproductive power of females but also has established an intense control over their sexuality and mannerisms to maintain purity of upper castes and patriarchal order in the society. The book views caste hierarchies from ‘gender lens’ and accounts the difference between experiences of women with respect to their location in this caste system. Chakravarti attempts to unveil multiple layers of discrimination and oppression existing within the caste system and how mainstream feminist movements have failed to engage with struggles of ‘lower caste and Dalit’ women. 

The books is composed of nine chapters and an engaging afterword, where Chakravarti takes ‘understanding caste’ as initiating point and then dig deep into the ‘gender axis’ by tracing the ‘historical roots of Brahmanical Patriarchy’ and leads the reader through various chapters of history exploring caste and gender dynamics within each of them. 

Uma Chakravarti has coined the term ‘Brahmanical Patriarchy’ and it should be noted that it does not mean patriarchy in Brahman castes. Rather, it refers to the ‘particular form of patriarchy in societies organized on the basis of caste.’ The book traces the historical accounts of the formation of Brahmanical Patriarchy through religious texts and historical documents.

In the prologue, Chakravarti opens with anti-mandal agitation and the role of upper caste women in it. She also highlights the failure of feminist debates to recognise the diversity in experiences of women belonging to differential backgrounds. Encompassing contemporary events, the book provokes the readers to question the place of women ‘as protagonists and as victims’ in caste based conflicts.

In the first chapter, the book attempts to understand the caste system theoretically (through religious texts/ beliefs) as well as its practical implications to upper castes, lower castes and Dalits.

Chakravarti explores the ideology behind domination of Brahmans and upper castes and exploitation of Dalits and women, and to specifically highlight oppression of women belonging to lower castes. Chakravarti mentions Ambedkar’s definition of caste as a system of ‘graded inequality’ and criticizes Dumont for solely focusing on ‘principles outlined in brahmanical texts’ for understanding caste system and not providing emphasis to practical experiences.

In Ambedkar’s formulation, caste is a system of ‘graded inequality in which castes are arranged according to an ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt.’

The book argues that lower castes do not consent to this system of hierarchy and how through different methods, ideological and coercive, lower castes and Dalits are contained within an oppressive system and in later part of the chapter extends the same to women. The first chapter raises a sense of urgency in the minds of readers to analyze the hierarchical structure around them by examining relationships between caste, class and gender through denial of  knowledge and skills to certain groups, drawing examples from mythical stories of Shamblika of Ramayana, Eklavya from Mahabharata and Philosopher Gargi.

Exploring women subordination in the Indian context, the book moves to the second chapter, emphasizing the importance of understanding the relationship between class and gender as well as caste and gender. Connecting Gerda Lerners’ work on women subordination in early Mesopotamia to Indian context, Chakravarti emphasizes on following 

how reproduction was organized, who controlled the crucial resource of female sexuality and what ideologies sanctioned and legitimated such control.

Exploring the above, the book takes the reader through the rule of endogamy and other marriage practices contributing to controlled sexuality of females to sustain purity among upper castes. Chakravarti argues that safeguarding of caste structure is achieved through the highly restricted movement of women, through female seclusion or even resorting to violence against women and lower castes. This is a striking point for the reader, which encourages them to read further to dig deeper into the patriarchy question.

In the third chapter, Chakravarti particularly focuses on the historical evolution of the Brahmanical Patriarchy in order to form the link between ‘male dominance and upper caste dominance.’  Beginning from the observing evidence of ‘nurturing roles of women as mothers’ and Mother Goddess in the early societies, moving further the book argues that Rig Vedic society was not  the golden era for women as it was claimed by Nineteenth century Hindu nationalists.

Using religious texts such as Rig Veda, Chakravarti claims that gender stratification existed and control of community or men over women’s sexuality was maintained through rule of endogamy among clans.

The book also mentions Buddhist texts on class and caste as a proof of social stratification on the basis of caste and gender existed circa B.C. 600-300. Comparing these texts with that of Manu, Chakravarti observed caste system as 

(i) a ritual system; (ii) a system of marriage; and (iii) a political and economic system

This chapter also attempts to trace the emergence of untouchability and evolution of the complex caste-based patriarchal social system.  Due to the mention of a number of historical religious texts, the reader may need patience to go through it. There are some complex parts which need more attention than others to understand the complete sense. 

In the fourth chapter, the book takes up the task to answer how the patriarchal system in Hindu caste system achieved subordination of women to establish control over their sexuality and thus using their reproductive quality to safeguard lineages and caste groups. Chakravarti highlights that in traditional Hindu texts, women were considered as lustful creatures with insatiable desires and viewed the upper caste woman as ‘object of moral panic.’ Thus various tools used to administer them and their sexuality. As a reader the most striking thing one finds  here is how the women’s cooperation was secured in their own submission, exploring how powerful ideology and economic dependency are few of the tools brahmanical patriarchal society uses so effectively.

Chakravarti argues that success of this system lies in the subtle working of its ideology of chastity and ‘satridharma’ as it makes the women themselves guard the same system that oppresses them. 

Institutionalizing sexual subordination of women in the brahmanical law codes, subtly the brahmanical patriarchy established consent to such practices in ritual forms as well as a mindset. Chakravarti does a beautiful job in outraging the readers by finely subjecting them to the ideas of institutionalized discrimination with thought provoking explanations.

What is astonishing to read in the fifth chapter of the book is that it explores the diversity in the practices of women subjugation with respect to caste and what practices and rituals differentiates between upper and lower castes. One of such practices is widowhood, the book mentions that while widowhood is considered social death among upper castes, such is not the case among lower castes. Effectively answering the questions one would ask while reading this chapter, Chakravarti explains that due to labor intensive work done by women of lower castes, they cannot be ‘disposed of socially.’ Thus widow remarriage is allowed among middle or lower castes, most of the time in the form of ‘levirate.’ 

Furthermore, Chakravarti mentions ‘graded patriarches’ to make the  reader aware about how each caste has to follow its own customs to differentiate between upper castes, lower castes and dalits and how the nature of the customs in linked to the system of division of labor and ‘ritual control.’ 

Chakravarti also pays attention to the patriarchy which Dalit women have to face among their own caste groups, and how they are the most oppressed group in the whole caste based hierarchy. With special attention to the Devadasi system, this chapter highlights how religion intersects with caste to discriminate against women of lower castes and Dalit women. This is one the most influential chapters of this book. 

With accounting criticism of ‘caste and gender stratification,’ in the sixth chapter, the book explores various historical references for the same. Initiating as early as women’s quest to obtain liberation through Buddhist sangha. Exploring the anti-caste aspect of the Bhakti movement, Chakravarti also exemplifies that it opened up space for the women as well. Drawing on poems written during the time, the chapter makes reference to caste and gender discrimination. The chapter also analyzes how in Maharashtra only that strand of Bhakti movement survived, which still upholds the supremacy of Brahmans over others. Thus Chakravarti argues that Bhakti movements did not lead to formation of new social identities but also emphasized that it left feminist heritage to explore and learn.

Working through the historiography approach, the next chapter of the book lands in the pre-colonial period and accounts caste and gender prevailed in eighteenth century Indian society. Paying attention to the general mobility within middle castes, the chapter analyzes the ‘strong barriers’ against social movement of Dalits. Citing an example again from Maharashtra, Chakravarti describes how Peshwas used their superior status to gain political and economic power and then enforced caste segregation codes and sexual codes, at times sorting to violence. 

What also got attention is how various tools were used to maintain hierarchies such as dress codes and ways of greeting etc.  

This chapter highlights the link between community and state in how the caste system was not a ‘spontaneous’ social order of the people, but very much a state order of society, controlled and protected by the state. 

As the colonial period is referred to as a ‘decisive moment’ by scholars, Chakravarti did a great job in establishing the caste and gender stratification scenario in that period before moving to colonial rule. 

Evidently, in the eighth chapter, Chakravarti talks about the Caste in the colonial period. The book mentions three perspectives to changes, the first one being the British Government who has to recognise caste system in order to proceed economically, legally and politically in the subcontinent as caste system is the base of organization of the majority of population. Second of the upper castes, who  were seeking ways to protect their superior position in the new secular structure on the basis of their ritual and social supremacy. Third of the lower castes and Dalits, who could have viewed this as an opportunity to break through the oppression and reorganize their social position. After that, the book includes how  the census was used to fix the relative position of different castes.

Chakravarti knits a great understanding of changes occurring during the period. She cites examples of breast-cloth controversy and riots to illustrate how lower castes were challenging status identities and still the consequences were not in their favor. 

But due to conversion to Christianity and availability of education through it, upward mobility became available on a selective basis. 

The chapter also draws on work of Phule, Perrier and Ambedkar who stood as a critique and activist against the oppressive caste system. 

Expressed in terms of legal intervention, the book does great in dealing with highlighting gender and caste discrimination persisting strongly during the British government period.  Even in case of rape law, lower caste women were discriminated against in providing protection and justice pertaining to their being woman of easy virtue. While upper cast woman was put on a high moral ground, for whom rape is worse than death especially if her rapist was a law caste woman. Chakravarti, through these types of instances and adding legal addresses in her writings, pierce through the reader’s mind and really makes them question the integrity of law and state. 

How court officials diversely (or better to say, discriminately) applied rules and laws to different regions based on customary practices is one the the important issue included in this chapter. 

Chakravarti also talks about the Age of Consent bill, and reveals the dichotomy of increasing consent (to consummate marriage) age but not marriage age for girls. Through various such acts, the chapter tries to understand the changing dynamics with respect to gender and caste. 

Chakravarti does not shy away from criticizing nineteenth-century reformers for their failure to propose structural reforms. All in all, this chapter engages intensely with readers and one would find it interesting to look at the colonial period from the Gendering caste lens. 

Moving through whole history, in the ninth and last chapter, Chakravarti writes about contemporary times and how even after so-called historical reforms nothing much has changed for lower caste and Dalit and especially for women belonging to these groups. 

Drawing from Poona Pact and its great betrayal to Dalits and women, Chakravarti covers the behind the scenes of Gandhi Ambedkar Debate and how the constitution, rather than abolishing caste, sought to confine it to the private realm and could not succeed in that. This chapter makes the reader aware about experiences of Dalits vs others. Questioning the changes which not only failed to bring social reform but also widened the social gap between other castes and Dalits. 

The chapter does commendable job in including Dalit Politics and Dalit literature with Dalit Panther Movement providing international attention and Dalit Women’s Federation forcing mainstream feminist movements to address the caste question. Taking the reader through Political presence of caste, this chapter evolves to understanding women’s compliance to a system which evidently oppresses them. By highlighting the differences in social and economic position of women with respect to caste, Chakravarti makes us question the factors behind such immense presence of caste in present society and how family and marriage culture is still based on caste rituals. 

If this does not pierce through the reader’s mind and make them aware about the plight of lower caste and Dalit women, Challenges extends a heart wrenching section at the end, where she includes a number of cases where justice was not served to sexually assaulted women of marginalized groups. The stories of Mathura, Phoolan Devi and Bhanwari Devi enrage the reader emotionally and make one question the integrity of judiciary and internalization of caste based discrimination. 

In the last section Retelling of Myths, Chakravarti highlights the role of literature and writing done by Dalits to contest ideological and oppressive practices. 

With this chapter, the book completes its journey and leaves the reader in their present scenario questioning the survival of caste and gender subordination in their own social surroundings. It makes the reader contemplate the understanding of relation between caste and gender and open their eyes to historical background while simultaneously exploring contemporary practices. 

The book reaches its true destination in the Afterword, where Chakravarti attested with various painful instances to the contemporary atrocities committed against lower castes, Dalits amd tribals and the gruesome sexual violence against women. 

After reading this book, the reader cannot leave an impression less and it encourages the reader to develop a questioning mindset towards the caste based patriarchal practices. It is an essential guide for not only the feminist scholars or academic students but to every person who is integrated in the caste system who can use this book to help themselves in understanding their own social standpoint and make an understanding of the Brahmanical Patriarchy. 

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Tamanna Nandal, a passionate master's student in Sociology with a keen interest in human experiences, completed her graduation from UoD. She is currently enrolled at Ambedkar University. When not immersed in academic pursuits, she ventures into the artistic world through poems and photography. Tamanna finds solace in the pages of fiction, fantasy, and short stories, making literature an integral part of her life.