“Women are the gateway to the caste system”

December 25, 2009 at 3:17 am 11 comments

82 years ago, on this day, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and his comrades burnt a copy of the Manusmriti at the small town of Mahad where they had gathered to protest the segregation of water. Decades later, dalit feminists, in recognition of the tremendous symbolic significance of Ambedkar’s act, have decided to call this day the Indian Women’s Liberation Day. Through this post, we pay our tribute to Dr. Ambedkar and his unrelenting struggle against the caste system and its oppressive determining presence in women’s lives- be they upper/lower castes or dalits.

By Gauri Jagdale,
MSW, II year

Manusmriti, a religious text that gained especial importance during the British times as defining rules for Hindus, has come to be identified as an outstanding exemplar of the severe inequities sanctioned by the supposed sacred texts of this religion. In particular, Manusmriti has been severely condemned by anti-caste and women’s movements in the country for the rules and roles it lays down for social conduct for women and for dalits.

For women, these are some of the “laws” laid down:

  • Women have no business with the text of Veda.
  • A woman must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brother-in-laws.
  • By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her house.
  • In Manu’s view, women were ornaments of the house who were to be kept safe and looked after utmost care and attention.
  • A woman must always be cheerful, clever in household affairs, careful in cleaning utensils, and economic in expenditure.

Duties for women include:

  • She must be loyal to her husband throughout her life: fidelity demanded from wife and no such demand from husbands.
  • Husband should constantly be worshipped though he may be devoid of good qualities : making subservience a virtue
  • Wife should not perform yagya, and fast without the presence or permission of her husband : access to God for women can only be mediated by husbands.
  • Whether the husband is dead or alive, she should not do anything which may displease her husband
  • Even after the death of her husband, she should not think of other man
  • After the death of her husband she should be patient of hardship and chaste.
  • If she cannot have a son or daughter by her husband she should not go to another man to have an offspring:
  • A widow should never re-marry.

On reading this, one might laugh at these antiquated notions of how women must be. But upon slightly deeper introspection, one would be surprised to know how many such ideas continue to live on. This is because these beliefs are deeply embedded in our societies and gain sacred legitimacy because they are intricately tied to our religious beliefs also. In many places, even the thought of breaking away from these restrictions calls for brutal consequences, for instance honour killings witnessed in many rural and urban parts of the country.

It is within this context that one must see how daring and confrontational the act of burning the Manusmriti was. Not only did it mean freedom for dalits symbolically, but it was about calling on women from every caste and class of this society to free themselves from the oppressive structure of the caste system. In burning the Manusmriti, Dr. Ambedkar was clearly making the link between the caste system and how it drew upon the violent submission of women to sustain and perpetuate itself. And that the caste system’s pervasive and insidiuous structure affected all women- with different consequences- but affected adversely nonetheless.

On this day, we stand together in solidarity with Dr. Ambedkar and the women-nameless and faceless-who answered his call and provided the momentum for the vibrant dalit women’s movement, whose legacy we have inherited and benefitted from… and hope to carry on.


Entry filed under: discussion.

Talking The Ambedkar Memorial lecture

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Vidya  |  December 25, 2009 at 11:48 am

    A very important subject indeed. The structure of endogamous marriages, something that continues very prominently, needs to also be understood.

  • 2. Dayalan  |  December 26, 2009 at 4:06 am

    Important Subject, In simple the author explained very well. Even In 21 century the so called Hindu families are not giving freedom to their Girls, Women etc. See all the serials in Bollywood are showing the same. Its shame that AP Governor ND TivaariJi is Involved in sexscandal and using Rajbhavan for all this purpose.

  • 3. krishan takhar  |  December 26, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    gauri, thank you, but as we see that our seniors like you and others who hold experience in various important fields of social work ,should plan some sessions on these crucial issues like this as it is very few time that the second year and first year are left to meet in campus. it would be great to have informative, sensitization sessions for the less experienced like me..
    thank you

  • 4. Anurag Shekhar  |  December 29, 2009 at 12:03 am

    Dear Friends, Manu Smriti was never universally followed or acclaimed by the vast majority of Indians in their history; it came to the world’s attention through a late eighteenth-century translation by Sir William Jones, who mistakenly exaggerated both its antiquity and its importance.
    In northern/southern India Vaishnavism and Shaivism were the common religious traditions, and the teachings of the Manu Smriti was not as widely followed or well-known.
    In 300 BCE, Megasthenes wrote that the people around the Mathura region worshiped Hari-Krishna and followed the Gita as daily life principles. Also Faxian did not mention anything about rigid-ness of the varna systems. Chanakya, the author of Arthashastra, never mentioned any social laws prevailing in the society during the first integrator and Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta’s reign.
    So Hindus in this country never really followed this scripture. so why my fellow Hindus do not stop thrashing our religion. It just shows the slave mindset of ours. I am not surprised we served other civilisations like British, Mughals etc for hundreds of years. if u are so ashamed of ur own culture and religion, u deserve to be slaved!!

  • 5. Swathi  |  December 29, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    Criticising a religion is not to say that one is ashamed of one’s culture and religion. It is to accept that there are things to be corrected and reformed within religion- a creation of humanity.

    Manu Smriti as a text might not have been significant in all parts of the country. But its ideas of inegalitarian ways of living in various forms have held much strength in various parts of the country. And burning that text is also saying that we are/want to burn down all the ideas that are held within it.

    Also, quoting authors from centuries ago, might be inaccurate because the caste system has not always been practised the way it is being practised now or for the last 50 years.

  • 6. Anurag Shekhar  |  December 29, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    Dear Swati, do u consider these statements as mere criticisms..”the so called Hindu families are not giving freedom to their Girls, Women etc. “(see comment 2). It is vicious attack.and I don’t understand why no one in this campus criticizes any other religion (is it fashionable to demean Hindus or we are scared of talking abt minorities & women rights).coming back to caste system,there are some who will never let caste system fade away because they make a living out of it. sad but true.

  • 7. Swathi  |  January 2, 2010 at 12:51 am

    Anurag, like I’ve said elsewhere, all religions have their oppressive practices. and when one questions/challenges these practices of any religion, to respond saying “well other religions are bad as well” is self-defeating and not constructive at all. it leaves us with no space to make the religion more inclusive and less oppressive.

    And, yes caste is embedded deeply in our lives. and some survive because of its existence. but if you were to accept it as fait accompli, then change/ a rupture from the past can never be possible.

  • 8. Shubhendu  |  May 21, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    I second what Anurag says.
    Plz tell me if Quran is different from Manusmriti.
    For laws relating to women in Islam, plz refer to “Al-Nisa” (Chapter-4).

  • 9. Shubhendu  |  June 6, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    The “Law of Manu” was cited favorably by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who observed as follows:
    “It is with an opposite feeling that I read the law of Manu, an incomparably spiritual and superior work: even to mention it in the same breath with the Bible would be a sin against the spirit…….the sun shines on the whole book. All the things on which Christianity vents its unfathomable meanness – procreation, for example, woman, marriage—are here treated seriously, with respect, with love and trust”.
    The author, Dr.Surendrakumar, states that out of a total of 2,685 verses, only 1,214 verses are authentic, the other 1,471 being interpolations on the text.

  • 10. muhammed affzhal  |  May 1, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    What a hypo critic non sense. Now Dalit and Women agenda being portrayed as one and same. Come on! dalit rape women aren;t… the famous delhi rape case – 2 were of obc caste ….

    now you are all West psychophants! There are other ways of showing off your intellect instead of cursing hindu scriptures. The sacred scriptures are for real people. not for faux pas of Tiss… gey out of your AC classrooms and meet real dalit people and oppressed people. then talk about manu.

  • 11. muhammed affzhal  |  May 1, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    one more thing…. don’t believe in hinduism.. don;t follow it… convert to islam asap.. emigrate to saudi or pakistan. and live happily…. why bother smart and intelligent people of india with your stupid analogies and pseudo copy research…. do you get your inspiration from usa…… may be…. want to walk on strret in bikini …go and walk… nobody who has read manu smriti from heart will give a fuck about you….. self centred idiots and please clarify by hindu families you mean what… dalit family , baniya family , sindhi famliy, brahmin family .. what exactly ????? and produce some real evidence to back up your claims not some shit citation from some bullshit of other publi8cation get a life and get real…. stop bothering real indian…. hindu from heart….. pious by virtue…


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