“Women are the gateway to the caste system”
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.