Posted by T. Lalita
Growing up in a conservative Telugu Brahmin household, I have constantly battled with myself, my family members, and my community for the problematic views that the community I belong to holds. I realised early on that I was leading dual lives; one at home, according to the staunch Brahmin rules, and one outside, among the “liberal” (albeit savarna) circles of Mumbai’s most elite colleges.
The characteristic trait of a Brahmin – even those who consider themselves progressive – is the air of superiority. It is evident in the way people from my community speak to those who do their daily chores like domestic helps, drivers and other such people belonging to the marginalized castes.
Brahmanism is the oldest and most well-oiled vehicle of patriarchy as Brahmin men and women explain our problematic opinions through mythological characters and through religious texts which supposedly lay out roles – not just for different castes but for different genders as well. This casteist mentality is also reflected in our double standards towards the ideas of equality, justice and social welfare as the upper castes are the loudest critics of reservation. Our education and our degrees are absolutely pointless as they only add to our superiority complex which is displayed in our interactions with those who are lower on the caste and class hierarchy in private and in public spaces.
The characteristic trait of a Brahmin – even those who consider themselves progressive – is the air of superiority.
Brahmanism places great emphasis on how a woman should conduct herself in public and what she is expected to do at home and outside to uphold the honour and dignity of the caste. The most important tool of this patriarchal-Brahmanical society is that of “purity”, that a Brahmin woman is expected to adhere to. Purity applies to a woman’s chastity, to marriage and to her interactions with members of the ‘lower’ castes or ‘sudrawallu’ – a casteist slur used to refer to the Dalit and Bahujan communities.
During childhood, a Brahmin girl’s parents and other family members continually feed into our heads the rules of interaction with the male gender. Knowingly or unknowingly, young girls start recognising who belongs to which caste, and generally our friendships are formed with Brahmins only. If friendships are cultivated with non-Brahmins, they happen with full awareness that the friend, usually female, are not Brahmins. Hence, eating or drinking water at their house is discouraged, since non-Brahmins consume meat.
Another strict rule that girls in Telugu Brahmin households learn is that of maintenance of purity while eating. Food can be cooked or consumed only if one bathes and while eating plates cannot touch the vessels with food in them. Antu and engili are two Telugu words that are drilled into every Brahmin, as one cannot use the same hand to eat and serve food. If one defies these rules, one is reprimanded. It is worse if one is a girl, as a girl is expected to fulfil her duty as a devout Brahmin wife later in life.
A Brahmin girl is also expected to be religious, praying to the Hindu deities every day, and following the orders of the priests at any religious occasion. The concept of purity is applied here as well. No one can touch the mandir (temple) without taking a bath. Older women are expected to cook food for God wearing wet clothes or madi clothes. These madi clothes cannot be worn as regular clothes.
The most important tool of this patriarchal-Brahmanical society is that of “purity”, that a Brahmin woman is expected to adhere to.
The most stringent application of purity among Brahmin women, and amongst most other castes is during menstruation. A woman is considered “impure” during menstruation. A pubescent girl in a Brahmin household is expected to sit separately for three whole days, without touching the cupboard, sleeping on the bed, entering the kitchen or touching other members of the family. If the girl is rich, she has the privilege of sleeping in another room altogether. She cannot mix her plate or the clothes she wears, with the clothes of other family members during these three days.
The rationale is that the woman is impure and hence, needs to “relax”. The menstruating girl is handed everything she needs from a distance, and everyone makes sure they don’t touch her. Going to the temple, or even standing in the vicinity of the mandir in the house is forbidden. The household chores, when a woman is menstruating, are done by either the non-menstruating women in the house, or the men. Women are supposed to be kept away for those three days.
The women in the community frown upon the women who “mix” everything in the house while they’re menstruating, thereby “destroying the culture” slowly. Even the women who dare to mix everything, would not dare to enter temples, as that would incur the wrath of the gods themselves. This practise of isolation of the women during her periods is regressive and it is utterly unfair as periods do not interfere with a woman’s daily life nor do they make her impure. No one should stop her from exercising her right to move freely, go to any place of worship or touch anything in the house.
Also Read: The “Tradition” Behind Menstrual Taboos
The internalised misogyny is so entrenched in the minds of adolescent girls, and young unmarried women that we adhere to these rules that the family sets. The central authority that administers these rules is obviously the older women who keep these women under control. Girls are expected to dress modestly, to wear bindis on their forehead, to not stay out late, to not associate with boys romantically, to not be loud and outspoken. Women who rebel against these norms are labelled by the women in particular and the entire community in general for going against the Brahmin rules as ‘loose and immoral’ because they chose to live life on their own terms. Consequently, women are caged in these roles they are expected to play, because a woman who acts independently is not the ideal daughter or a suitable bride. This misogyny is perpetuated by slut-shaming women who rebel against these norms, thus keeping women in check to avoid being labelled similarly.
As women in Brahmin households are expected to mingle only among the community’s circles through sabhas and organisations within the same caste or sub-caste, interactions with other castes are impersonal at best. Generally, one doesn’t visit the houses of meat-eating friends, and food consumed at restaurants is a carefully chosen pure-veg eateries only.
The closest interaction with a non-dominant caste person that a Brahmin woman has on a daily basis is with women who work as domestic workers at their houses. They wash the dishes in an outhouse because they are not allowed to wash dishes in the kitchen, as that would ‘pollute’ it. Domestic workers are served food and water in separate utensils and they are never touched or allowed to sit on the beds or chairs in the house. Brahmin girls are taught early on to maintain the superiority in their interactions with the helps. So, if a woman they know is a non-Brahmin, it does not matter if she is well-educated or financially better off than them, the fact that she is not a Brahmin will always be a criterion for judgement for Brahmin women. Many women justify their casteist behaviour by mentioning hygiene, which is a poor excuse to treat a human being as inferior to them.
As women in Brahmin households are expected to mingle only among the community’s circles, interactions with other castes are impersonal at best.
Purity however, is most deeply embedded in the Brahmin way of life through our marriage practices. Marriage however, liberal the family may be, must occur within the caste and the sub-caste because good human beings are only found within the community. The rationale of the family members is that the lifestyle and specifically the eating habits of non-Brahmins will cause conflict in a marriage. Hence, pre-marital heterosexual relationships will find acceptance only if they are with Brahmin boys and only if the jyotishudu or astrologer says that the horoscopes have matched.
Marriages are made in gotra heaven and that too only if the family accepts the boy, who must belong to the community. The women who choose to fall in love outside the caste, which is rare, find no acceptance in the community as an inter-caste marriage is the greatest sin a woman can commit. This fear is instilled and often a woman has less to no say in choosing her life partner as the elders in the family know what is best. So the only thing a woman is expected to do is maintain a conventionally beautiful appearance and finish her degree so she can be married off hopefully without a dowry, because times have apparently changed.
an inter-caste marriage is the greatest sin a brahmin woman can commit.
The misogyny and casteism in Brahmanical circles is toxic and has no place in the lives of progressive feminist women. Brahmin people grow, eat, marry and die only amongst each other and even their activism is often in their own privileged spaces, which is why it fails to represent all those marginalised communities and the women who belong to these communities.
It is a mammoth task to stand up to these forces that continually seek to control our lives, but if we cower in front of the countless men and women who tell us to not have inter-caste and inter-faith marriages, who tell us to be less opinionated, we will be collectively letting down all the women who fought for our rights. We will be letting down all the progressive voices that fought for women’s rights and the rights of the marginalised sections in our society. We must call out the casteism and the misogyny and we must continuously check our privilege, even if it means clashing head on with our loved ones. Our lives cannot be controlled by these regressive rules and it is high time we lead our lives on our own terms.
Lalita is a an “anti-national” feminist who likes to ask questions that make people uncomfortable. She also likes to have conversations about caste privilege, global warming, existentialism and regressive Telugu cinema over a plate of curd rice. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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