Women’s bodies have been sites of violence and discrimination. According to WHO, one third of women face some form of gender-based violence (GBV) in their lifetime. GBV in private spaces is also on the rise, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic scare that all countries of the world are grappling with. As the situation gets worse for women in India, we see that India’s meteoric rise to becoming the nation least safe for women as Thomson Reuters study reported in 2018, had its origins in not only patriarchy but also casteism.
As part of a larger transnational research project based on prevention of gender based violence (GBV), I attempted to develop a more contextual and localised concept of ‘domestic violence’, thus beginning to recognise the more subtle forms of abuse my participants had lived through. I admitted that the abuse women face because of their identity, because of who they are and what they represent, may manifest as any one, or combination of the three established forms of violence, or, through a new hybridised form. I am talking about the omnipresence and all-pervasiveness of caste and more specifically, the violence women face for marrying outside of their birth caste, i.e., the illusive violence of an inter-caste marriage and a caste(less?) life.
In India, ‘love marriage’ or how I would call it, ‘marriage of choice’ may not always be synonymous to inter-caste marriage. But inter-caste marriages are necessarily marriages of choice, since the other kind of marriage, i.e., ‘arranged’ marriage, are decided collaboratively by families, keeping in mind the similarity of caste and culture profiles. This is also a matter of ‘choice’ but not of the people to be married. In our total participants of 42 women, eight had love marriages, 27 had arranged marriages, and seven were never-married.
The women participants of our study indicated that it was love that drove them to find a partner outside of their own caste. What was also apparent was that women who decided to go against their family’s choice faced overt and covert kinds of violence, yet unarticulated within the larger global discourse of prevention of GBV. To understand GBV without an intersectional and localised perspective would fail at recognising the pervasiveness of violence and target the foundational problem of Brahminical patriarchy circumscribing all social interactions. Reading GBV as product of Brahminical patriarchy and not simply inequality of genders helps undo the caste-bias of GBV interventions. Here lies the importance of understanding the phenomenon of inter-caste marriage as an undeniable reality and an important critique of a power structure that is normalised as well as neglected from global discourse.
Caste of Married Women
“[…] his mother had a problem because I was Maharashtrian and much lower caste than them,” said Komal.
In 2018 I met Komal, one such woman facing layered yet conspicuous kinds of violence because she chose her husband, who belonged to an upper-caste Gujarati Jain family, while she was a lower-caste Maharashtrian. She married young, and relocated to her husband’s home, leaving behind her birth caste and identity like most women do.
It is accepted that women who marry are supposed to let go of their natal family ties and proceed to live a well-adjusted life with their husband’s family, and this very reason is why women are considered ‘casteless’ in Hinduism. As if changing her physical location is not enough, she is also expected to take on her husband’s surname and therefore his caste identity.
While sharing about this Komal said, “We leave our natal home after marriage then after that our family is our husband’s family. We have to forget our natal homes; we do not interfere on any matter that happens there. For us everything belongs here because our future begins from here.“
In fact, a woman is disallowed to have an identity pre-marriage in case that identity comes in conflict with her new post-marriage identity that is thought to be the most important. In order for women to stay married and continue believing in their new caste statuses and identities, often their lives before marriage get looked at as ‘just a phase’ which she should ideally grow out of. As if, ‘natal’ the word, is nothing but a long wait, which women will eventually tire of, and begin their real lives in their marital homes as ‘complete’ married women. Pre-marital identity markers like class or geographical location are liminal; in other words, women are to be like water, fluid and ready to take the shape of the vessel it is poured into – and this is the only characteristic important for a woman to hone.
“[…] even though I think and work for them endlessly. This is their house, nothing is mine […],” agonised Komal.
Striratnam dushkuladapi, this popular Sanskrit phrase explicates that women may belong to differing or even lower-castes, they would still make ‘valuable wives’ if they have the best quality – an identity that is fluid, that can be molded, that is open to redefining her sensibilities according to her new caste and family.
“[Jain] Community recognises me, but members of my own family don’t. […] I really have nobody to stand by me because I do not belong to their caste,” she mourned.
Komal told me, her husband’s larger community had accepted her ‘lower caste’ status, only because she had several qualities that a woman should possess, to be identified as a ‘good’ wife. She had left behind her previous life to become a dutiful new bride, embracing the caste (by changing her surname) and culture of her marital family wholeheartedly. Besides her ‘lower caste’ status, she had all the other so-called ‘ratnas‘ a ‘stri‘ must have; yet, within the family, she could not get desired respect, she was constantly reminded of her lower caste.
While pointing out to the casteism she faced Komal shared, “My younger sister-in-law was also staying with us and she belonged to the Jain caste. She used to ignore me—she is upper and I am lower, that is why she would ignore me… Whatever work I used to do, she used to criticise and fight as well.“
Caste has a more complicated relationship with identity, it stays with us through thick and thin, it’s omnipresent.
Public Acceptance and Intimate Rejection of a Caste-Marked Body
The acceptance of Komal within the larger community highlights the fact that her ‘fluidity’ of identity was endorsed by the larger social order as her existence before marriage was made invisible. The ethereal woman becomes the main category of examination for Komal’s husband’s community, not so much her lower caste status. Whereas when this same woman with her actual lived body is introduced to the ‘domestic’ space of an upper caste Jain household, carrying with her the potential to corrupt the established notions of purity, can lead to chaos for the Savarna.
It doesn’t matter anymore that this very ‘corruptive’ body of a woman has valuable qualities that make her not only a good wife, but also an agentic human. The mere existence of a lower-caste woman in the realm of a ‘clean’ space of the upper caste household defiles (and radicalises) the established caste privilege. Within the family, Komal’s caste-identified body magnified the ‘inter-caste’ sensibilities which the family saw as an impossible interaction of unequal castes. It was violative of acceptable social norms, thus unacceptable. This played a pivotal role in a) giving her consciousness of her own caste location, b) helping her make conscious choices for the future.
“If I share with anybody or with my natal family then… Once a situation had come up that I went back to my mother’s house because the fight had reached a boiling point. […] my mother made me understand that I got married on my own wish, so I should not think about returning there, she said, ‘everything you have is there (marital home) so adjust and stay there‘,” shared Komal.
Living in this complexity, Komal when faced with abuse or discrimination is not given the option to go back to the lower caste family that she has left since marriage. How can she go back, when falling in love with a man from an upper caste and marrying him, has automatically disengaged her from her birth caste and even family? Even her natal family punished her for such impunity of an inter-caste marriage! Komal’s lower caste natal family’s acceptance of caste-specific norms around marriage was not too different from her upper caste marital family’s, they were equally displeased with her decision. And Komal faced the worst of it: physical and emotional abuse, economic control and eventually distrustful with her own choices.
Komal, “…She keeps telling me that she will marry only when she has a job and is well settled herself, and then will find a good guy from our community in Jain and marry.
M: So, her caste is Jain?
Komal: Yes, she will not marry a Maharashtrian guy for sure she says.
Komal’s lived realities show the unending violence women face at the hands of their marital and natal families. She is in a limbo, unacceptable to the former, disgraceful to the latter. Significantly, women going back to their natal family because of domestic violence they face at marital homes is not a generic practice, more so in this case, as Komal did not wish to bear with the problems of her birth caste and return to her natal family and community. To safeguard her daughter’s marriage, she preferred her to choose her husband’s upper caste identity as the only acceptable caste of a future son-in-law, so that the violence embedded in inter-caste marriage can be avoided: this was her process of self and future preservation.
The Prejudice and Violence of the Savarnas
Komal’s and her daughter’s decision to be identified as an upper caste and marry within that group was also a systematic socialisation of thinking that savarnas do not commit GBV among their own caste. For Komal the inter-caste marriage become so painful, her caste status was so repetitively dehumanised that she began accepting that it was not in fact her gender that also was the reason of her misfortune. She turned her ‘love marriage’ as the only bane of her reality, thus implying that had she and her husband married within their caste groups, they would have better and trauma-free life.
Komal’s experiences made her think about her daughter’s future differntly, While sharing about the same she said, “I just want my daughter to get good education and become a CA. Her future should not be ruined like mine. She also knows my whole life story, so she is also not going towards love marriage neither does she have such friends, no male friends specially. It has been fixed into her mind that problems are created in love marriages.“
Just like Komal’s caste demarcated her inferiority in her family, it was also her gender that further emphasised her oppression. Komal’s co-sister-in-law, she narrated, was also facing a similar crisis as she was, the only difference was, she belonged to the same caste as their marital family. While talking about this Komal said, “My husband’s younger brother has left her and gone to S. Things didn’t work out between them as well. They have no kids […] she stays alone at M Road. […] She stays alone, facing depression. No kid, no husband, who will meet all the expenses?“
As it became clearer to me that gender and caste both affect women’s everyday realities, however, each has its own insidious way to undermine women in general. Komal’s co-sister-in-law was deserted by her husband, who in all likelihood married her following all social norms, unlike Komal, but she was still at the receiving end of violence nonetheless. But dissimilar to Komal’s situation, she had a lot more support from the community at large because of her caste.
In Jain community there is a trust that helps poor people by providing basic food requirements and provisions on monthly basis. Komal went on to explain how her co-sister-in-law managed to get basic provisions without being employed anywhere and without having financial assistance from her marital or even natal family. This scheme, however insignificant the amount, really put into perspective that Komal’s violence was much more pronounced because of her caste, as she would never be able to qualify for such kind of support, neither from family, nor from the community.
Do savarna women not face gender based violence? Of course, they do, they face and resist, but clearly the kind of violence that lower caste women face in savarna households has its own magnanimity. This very partial treatment of Komal’s co-sister-in-law by the larger community also impressed upon her that at least in an ‘arranged marriage’ women who are facing violence still may have some redressal or support.
It may be presumptuous of Komal to think that staying within the upper caste would give her daughter better opportunity than her, but it is based on lived experiences, where she found someone just like her get the social, moral, and even financial support that she needed so very much. Brahminical patriarchy is real and affects women across castes, but it is especially harmful for women who are transgressing caste boundaries through marriage.
Multidimensionality of Violence
When we think about Komal’s situation through the lens of gender, as I was trained to do, marriage became the fundamental space of contention and one of the most important institutions that promotes inequality of genders. But this would completely deny her agency, her choice, her decision making – hence the need to underscore the importance of an inter-caste marriage as a critique and radicalisation of caste inequality. But it still does not help women like Komal get respect, rather, as we saw, she continued to face violence. Inter-caste marriage may be a step in the right direction, it comes with insurmountable challenges for lower-caste women. Is there any solution to this dilemma?
“[…] celebrating inter-caste marriages, is a futile method of achieving the desired end. The real remedy is to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the shastras. […] How do you expect to succeed if you allow the shastras to continue to mould the beliefs and opinions of the people?” ~ Dr B R Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste
Dr Ambedkar’s speech brings it all together: the main objective of social progress is to bring down the system, of caste and of marriage, in unison. Inter-caste marriages can only bring change if the individuals are free of the Brahmanical ideology. Hindu shashtras have simultaneously and equally denigrated the woman and Dalits, and any institution that continues to be dictated by such ideologies should not be accepted. Komal’s marriage was a union of two ‘unequal’ parties, be that because of caste, class or gender. The violence that she faced was not actually unique, it was a collusion of several oppressive institutions embedded in the same belief — you will always embody what you are born with, that is the type of violence that needs more research.
Rukmini Banerjee is a researcher based in Mumbai, India
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