Arguably at the lowest rung of the established social hierarchy, Dalit women are often forced to endure extreme trials and tribulations. Their troubles manifest themself even when they supposedly gain upward social mobility, marrying into a caste that is higher than them. With more educational and socio-economic opportunities than ever before, there has been a steady increase in the number of such inter-caste marriages in India. However, there exists imperceptible oppression in inter-caste marriages, a bias that is characterized by caste abuse, humiliation, rejection and extreme forms of violence. This essay discusses the causes and multidimensionality of the obstacles faced by women when they choose to transcend caste lines and step into heterosexual marriages with upper-caste men. It also broadly engages in uncovering how gender and caste intertwine to push Dalit women into indescribable oppression, both inside and outside their marriage.
True equality in marriage is not possible, as it will always remain an oppressive institution for the historically disadvantaged gender. This is because marriage, in many ways and forms, upholds patriarchal structures. It assigns social roles to women, where to maintain true balance in the family, women are supposed to take upon the responsibility of a homemaker while men go out to work. In most families, the household is dominated by males, specifically because they are considered to have a higher status in society. Therefore, marriage is an inherently unfeminist institution (Swaddle, 2019). Add to this, a woman is not only discriminated against because of her gender but also because of her so-called lower caste. This two-fold bigotry often results in abominable lives for Dalit women. Indian society, especially Hindu tradition, places great importance on conventional marriage. For most, it means a heterosexual, endogamous marriage whose sole purpose is caste preservation.
Inter-caste marriages are thus met with exceptional resistance. The rate of inter-caste marriages in India, as reported by India Human Development Survey, is as low as 5.82% and there has been no upward trend over the past four decades (The Print, 2020). There are two types of inter-caste marriages, anuloma (hypergamous) and pratiloma (hypogamy). While the former constitutes a marriage between a higher-caste man and a lower-caste woman, the roles are reversed in the latter. These two types of marriage are conceived by caste patriarchy as institutions that risk caste identity and its purity (Mitra, 2021). Hostile reactions to inter-caste marriages are a common phenomenon. However, the problem does not cease here. It is the experienced distress that Dalit women experience even after marriage, that is not discussed enough. These unfortunate wives have to go through regular domestic violence, caste abuse, intimate rejection and severe humiliation. For he retains a much higher status in society, it is in an upper-caste man’s blood to exploit the weak.
Sticks & Stones: Domestic Violence
While Babasaheb Ambedkar advocated for inter-caste marriages to eradicate and eventually eliminate the evils of caste system, it is now clear that such marriages bypass the proposed endogamy yet still retain their essence (Aravind, 2021). Dalit women are subjected to extreme forms of violence. They are beaten, raped, both physically and verbally abused and severely exploited (Sujatha, 2014). In most cases, the upper-caste man extracts labour and capital from the woman. More often than not, the household runs on her income. However, Dalit women are usually forced into menial work like domestic service or casual labour. The money that she earns through her work is spent on sustaining the household, and on her husband’s liquor. In a study conducted by Anveshi Women’s Studies Research Centre, Dalit women who were victims of domestic violence usually state that their husbands beat them while intoxicated and demanded that their wives supply them with money (Sujatha, 2014).
Dowry demands are another common factor that results in domestic violence for lower-caste women. Especially in inter-caste marriages, the Dalit woman is forced to bring generous dowry in exchange for promises of upper social mobility. Higher dowries assure upper-caste grooms, and when this transaction fails to go through, women are often abandoned, beaten or violated as punishment (Chiplunkar & Weaver, 2019). Such instances are common in both urban and rural areas. While a lower caste is an ascriptive form of stratification, it often results in a lower social class identity as well, precisely because one’s socioeconomic position based on employment relations is heavily characterized by caste status (Vaid, 2012). Therefore, it is very common for bridal families to not be able to fulfil their promises of considerable dowry to upper-caste men, the brunt of which is eventually borne by the woman.
Inconspicuous Oppression: Rejection & Humiliation
In inter-caste marriages that seem successful, there still exist imperceptible inequalities in ways that often escape the eyes. The Dalit woman is forced to curate her lifestyle according to impositions by the upper-caste family. In conversation with a newly inter-caste wedded couple, the groom declared that he will replace the wife’s blood with an upper caste one (Aravind, 2021). Such statements are common among inter-caste couples. It is believed that Dalit women corrupt the purity of upper-caste households. They are not allowed to enter their in-law’s homes, and although their income contributes to the sustenance of the marital family, they are still subjected to humiliation and harassment (Banerjee, 2021). The Dalit woman also becomes the subject of emotional oppression, where she is constantly teased about her caste status. She has abandoned post-marriage and is blamed for unfounded flaws, such as genetic defects in her children (Mitra, 2021). Dominant caste husbands thus often report do not want children from Dalit wives, or visit their Dalit grandparents’ home. They are also ostracized from their own community as a result of marrying Dalit women (Mangubhai et al., 2006). Most people in Hindu society thus finch away from inter-caste marriage, for they fear social exclusion and loss of reputation at the hands of the public.
Consequences of Inter-Caste Marriage: Long-Term Impact
According to a study conducted among Dalit women in Kalika, many respondents who have been victims to such oppression state long term impacts of caste-based marital violence. After she took several beatings, one woman started experiencing frequent dizziness and headaches (Khatri, 2021). Some women were subjected to malnourishment and violence to such an extent that they were forced to give up their jobs and forgo their income.
Many respondents also suffered from loneliness, depression, hopelessness and incessant anger. After a whole day of menial work, they get little to no privacy in their families and face caste abuse and humiliation at the hands of their own family as well as outsiders. This leads to severe psychological abuse and mental health problems for these women.
All such cases also lead to extreme damage to the woman’s reproductive health. While some suffered a miscarriage, others prolapsed or gave bith to low-weight, premature babies (Khatri, 2021).
Honour Killing: A Tool for Caste Preservation
Ambedkar’s view of caste was entrenched in endogamy. In his “Castes In India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development”, Ambedkar laid the foundation for a feminist take on caste by determining the value of surplus man and surplus woman. What he did not account for, was the modern-day phenomenon of honour killing. Ambedkar highlighted how Brahminical patriarchy both preserved and eulogized practices that degraded women, such as Sati, forced widowhood or child marriage (Rege, 2018). Now that these have been classified as heinous crimes and have almost ceased to exist, people have come up with new ways of caste preservation. The homicide of a woman member of a family or a social group, due to the belief that she has brought dishonour upon the community is one such way in which caste is preserved.. The practice is called honour killing (Banerjee, 2020) and it is instrumental in the notion of caste patriarchy. Women, who violate the code of caste chastity are chased, beaten down, ostracized, brutalized and killed (Banerjee, 2020).
Ostracization of these women from the community is an indirect way to ensure a forced maiden status so that she is not allowed to bring shame upon the community and cannot find herself a husband from the lower caste again. Similarly, causing death upon the couple solves the issue of surplus men and woman. Honour killings are thus a way to punish caste exogamy while simultaneously expressing one’s regard for caste preservation. This results in status maintenance in society and leads to fewer chances of social exclusion. As many as 145 incidents of honour killing were reported in India between 2017 and 2019 (India Today, 2021).
Babasaheb Ambedkar actively advocated for inter-caste marriage as an antidote to caste-based discrimination. However, the data above very well display the oppression that Dalit women continue to face due to the unequal partnership they share with their significant half in an exogamous marriage. In Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar mentioned that celebrating inter-caste marriages is futile unless people destroy the belief in the sanctity of shastras (Attri, 2019). Therefore, gender-based violence, though common all over the world, should be studied in terms of Brahmanical patriarchy to understand the nuances of its implications in an inter-caste marriage. Reading Dalit women’s struggles and the shared intricacies of both gender and caste-based discrimination will help in empowering those burdened by several oppressive institutions.
Attri, P. (2019, July 4). Haryana Khap Panchayat’s directive against using caste surnames will
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Banerjee, R. (2021, February 16). Oppressed Caste Woman In The Upper Caste Family: The Imperceptible Oppression In An Inter-Caste Marriage. Feminism In India. https://feminisminindia.com/2021/02/17/imperceptible-oppression-inter-caste-marriage/
Banerjee, S. (2020, May 5). Honour Killing: India’s Own Pandemic Of Casteist Patriarchy.