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10-08-2015, 23:09

CASTE, CLASS, AND GENDER

Drawing generalizations about the life of the average Indian is difficult because of ethnic, religious, and caste differences, which are compounded by the vast gulf between town and country. Although the constitution of 1950 guaranteed equal treatment and opportunity for all, regardless of caste, and prohibited discrimination based on untouchability, prejudice is hard to eliminate. Untouchability persists, particularly in the villages, where harijans, now called dalits, still perform menial tasks and are often denied fundamental human rights. In general, urban Indians appear less conscious of caste distinctions. Material wealth rather than caste identity is increasingly defining status. Still, color consciousness based on the age-old distinctions between upper-class Aryans and lower-class Dravidians remains strong. Classconscious Hindus still express a distinct preference for light-skinned marital partners. In recent years, low-caste Indians (who represent more than 80 percent of the voting public) have begun to demand affirmative action to relieve their disabilities and give them a more equal share in the national wealth. Officials at U.S. consulates in India have noticed a rise in visa applications from members of the brahmin caste, who claim that they have “no future” in the new India. But opponents of such measures are often not reluctant to fight back. Phoolan Devi, known as the “bandit queen,” spent several years in jail for taking part in the murder of twenty men from a landowning caste who had allegedly gangraped her when she was an adolescent. Her campaign for office during the 1996 elections was the occasion of violent arguments between supporters and opponents, and she was assassinated by an unknown assailant in 2001. In few societies was the life of women more restricted than in traditional India. Hindu favoritism toward men was compounded by the Muslim custom of purdah to create a society in which males were dominant in virtually all aspects of life. Females received no education and had no inheritance rights. They were restricted to the home and tied to their husbands for life. Widows were expected to shave their heads and engage in a life of religious meditation or even to immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. After independence, India’s leaders sought to equalize treatment of the sexes. The constitution expressly forbade discrimination based on sex and called for equal pay for equal work. Laws prohibited child marriage and the payment of a dowry by the bride’s family. Women were encouraged to attend school and enter the labor market. Such laws, along with the dynamics of economic and social change, have had a major impact on the lives of many Indian women. Middle-class women in urban areas are much more likely to seek employment outside the home, and many hold managerial and professional positions. Some Indian women, however, choose to play a dual role—a modern one in their work and in the marketplace and a more submissive, traditional one at home (see the box on p. 282). Such attitudes are also reflected in the Indian movie industry, where aspiring actresses must often brave family disapproval to enter the entertainment world. Before World War II, female actors were routinely viewed as prostitutes or “loose women,” and such views are still prevalent among conservative Indian families. Even Karisma Kapoor, one of India’s current film stars and a member of the Kapoor clan, which has produced several generations of actors, had to defy her family’s ban on its women’s entering show business. Nothing more strikingly indicates the changing role of women in South Asia than the fact that in recent years, three of the major countries in the area—India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—have had women prime ministers. It is worthy of mention, however, that all three—Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, and Srimivao Bandaranaike— came from prominent political families and owed their initial success to a husband or a father who had served as prime minister before them. Like other aspects of life, the role of women has changed much less in rural areas. In the early 1960s, many villagers still practiced the institution of purdah. A woman who went about freely in society would get a bad reputation. Female children are still much less likely to receive an education. The overall literacy rate in India today is less than 40 percent, but it is undoubtedly much lower among women. Laws relating to dowry, child marriage, and inheritance are routinely ignored in the countryside. There have been a few highly publicized cases of sati (the immolation of widows on their deceased husband’s funeral pyre) although undoubtedly more women die of mistreatment at the hands of their husband or of other members of his family. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of continued sexual discrimination in India is the high mortality rate among girls. One-quarter of the female children born in India die before the age of fifteen as a result of neglect or even infanticide. Others are aborted before birth after genderdetection examinations. The results are striking. In most societies, the number of women equals or exceeds that of men; in India, according to one estimate, the ratio is only 933 females to 1,000 males.

 

 

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